SPRINGFIELD – The Thurston Colts were sitting at 8-8 and on the outside-looking-in of the playoff race as they played the first two in a four-game home stand. Last Tuesday, the Colts beat rival Springfield 57-41, then on Friday hosted No. 12 Crater in a huge Midwestern League game. Leading nearly the whole game, but never by much, Thurston held on thanks to a game-winning layup by Luke Newell on an assist from Walker Bonar with 5 seconds left.
“There was a lot of space and Walker had been attacking space really well all night long,” said Blaine Liberatore, Thurston coach. “Walker had been finishing so well at the rim that they had to collapse on him, and Luke made a great cut and a good finish. It was a great play by Walker to get it to him and a great cut by Luke. So that wasn’t a design call, that was just playing in space. Walker made a great play.”
The win not only set the home crowd on fire, it also put Thurston at 10-8 and inside the playoff bubble.
“It’s awesome to get two wins. You get a rivalry win against Springfield, and then Crater is somewhat of a rivalry as well,” Liberatore said. “We’ve played so many important games over the years, whether it’s football or basketball, so there’s a little bit of a natural rivalry just because of the competitive balance between us. So to have this week be 2-0 is great.”
The two wins also showcased one of Thurston’s biggest strengths: the team’s balanced scoring attack. Bonar led the way against Springfield with 16 points, and added 15 against Crater. Sophomore Nate Stiffler put up 17 against Crater and 13 against Springfield, and while senior Hunter James has been banged up recently, he’s also led the team in scoring at different points.
“We have three or four guys every single night that can go put up double digits, and you just never know who it’s going to be,” Liberatore said. “Our greatest strength is the fact that it can be anybody, any night. And that’s hard to game-plan for if you’re another team.”
Now 10-8 on the season, Thurston sits tied for fourth in the Midwestern League. Only three teams from the league get automatic playoff qualifiers, but two additional teams in Class 5A get at-large bids, and the Colts currently hold one of those slots.
“Right now we are one of the two at-large teams in the state playoffs, so we gotta keep winning. The goal is to get in the top three in the league as the top three teams automatically qualify. We don’t want to worry about at-large or not. We want to be in the top three,” Liberatore said.
If Thurston wants to get into that top-three it will need to improve on the 3-3 record from the first round-robin. That means beating Crater again and beating Ashland, who the Colts lost to 54-51 earlier in the season despite leading by five late.
“There’s a lot of basketball to play. North Eugene and Churchill kind of separated themselves. But then there’s that middle tier, which is us, Ashland, and Crater,” Liberatore said. “I think there’s a bunch of evenly matched teams in our league, so this is a huge stretch in our season if we want to end up in the state playoffs.”
Liberatore knows his team is good enough, they’ve competed with everyone in the league, win or lose. While an occasional mental error has hurt them against the best teams, Liberatore says the team has worked hard to improve and learn from those games.
“The cool thing is the kids are bought in, and they enjoy each other. They want to be coached, so it’s a fun group. They’re competitive. They don’t like to lose,” he said. “Gameplan-wise and personnel-wise, I think we’re going to be fine.”