Without a starter taller than 6-foot-2, the Dayton Pirates aren't going to strike fear into teams at the opening tip.
Once the game starts, though, they run circles around their opponents, coming at them from every angle.
“We've got five guards on the floor, and I don't know who's going to be the leading scorer every single night,” coach Ron Hop said. “If we do get a guy hot, we'll try to run him off some screens, but we're not running plays for people. I let them play basketball.”
It's been a winning strategy for the Pirates (23-1, 12-0 PacWest Conference), who are No. 2 in the OSAAtoday 3A boys basketball coaches poll. They carry a 22-game winning streak into a conference playoff game Saturday against second-place Amity (16-9, 9-3), outscoring foes by an average of 24.1 points per game.
After graduating the conference player of the year (point guard Benji Hudson) and a first-team all-state tournament selection (Tyler Spink) from last year's semifinal team, it was hard to know what to expect from Dayton this season.
But the Pirates have taken it up a notch, recording wins over No. 1 De La Salle North Catholic, No. 4 Cascade Christian, co-No. 5 Oregon Episcopal, No. 7 Creswell and No. 10 Santiam Christian, as well as defeating two 2A powers in No. 1 Salem Academy and No. 2 Western Christian.
Hop, who has gone 440-136 with three state titles (2012, 2015, 2017) in 21 seasons at Dayton, said he knew this team had the “parts and pieces,” but wasn't sure how it would come together.
“I told the guys, 'To be honest, if you would've told me we were going to be 23-1, with the schedule we had this year, I would've taken it and run in a heartbeat,'” Hop said. “Because we had a super hard schedule. We played everybody that we possibly could. Last year we played all those teams and we didn't beat any of them.”
The Pirates' only setback came in their second game, a 52-42 loss at No. 3 Westside Christian. They led throughout the first half but faded down the stretch.
“We just kind of ran out of gas,” Hop said. “We weren't in shape. I don't spend a lot of time trying to get guys in shape in the first two weeks.”
Dayton returned three full-time starters in junior Boston Hodges (5-10) and seniors Trae Wall (6-2) and Michael Freeborn (6-2) and a part-time starter in senior Lucas Ashley (6-0). The fifth starter is senior Caleb Primbs (5-8).
Freeborn (12.0 points per game), Hodges (11.5 points), Wall (9.0 points), Primbs (8.5 points) and Ashley (8.0 points) lead a balanced offense that is averaging 64.1 points per game, up from 54.6 last season. Unlike last season, when they often deferred to Spink, the Pirates aren't shy about shooting and can catch fire from deep.
“Last year, I kept telling them, 'Hey, shoot the ball, you're open,'” Hop said. “This year they're not looking to the bench, they're not questioning what we're doing, they're just going out and playing. We knew they all could shoot, they just weren't last year. We shoot as a team way better than we did last year.”
Hop said that Hodges, the quarterback for the state semifinal football team, averages about 20 points in the team's more competitive games, but often comes out early in lopsided wins.
“He's what makes us go,” Hop said. “He has a 38-inch vertical. He's such a great athlete. He's gotten some rebounds over 6-5, 6-6 guys.”
Primbs, a reserve last season, has elevated his game as a starter.
“He's probably our biggest spark as far as confidence,” Hop said. “His confidence has finally gotten to the point where he's not questioning how good he is.”
The Pirates have been holding opponents to 40.0 points per game, down from 44.8 last year. Despite their lack of size, they have been able to hold bigger teams in check. They limited Cascade Christian 7-0 junior Austin Maurer to 14 points and five rebounds in a 57-50 road win over the reigning 3A champion Dec. 21.
“We have plans for guys like that,” Hop said. “We played very well that night. We didn't turn it over, and coming down the stretch we hit some big shots. We were able to get them on somewhat of a flat night.”
Hop said the Pirates have “overachieved to this point” in the season. They don't have the physical dominance of his title teams, but their experience and chemistry should serve them well in the postseason.
“It's going to be tough to beat three of these really, really good teams,” he said. “They all have something that we don't, and that's height. That's always a scary thing. But we do have experience and have been there. Hopefully that will carry us a little ways.
“I like our chances. These guys, when they play well, they're extremely hard to beat. It's fun to watch.”