Men’s basketball reaches new heights

By Keenan Gray

Whatcom’s men’s basketball program is known for recruiting tall, post players from local high schools around Whatcom County.

The men’s basketball team lacked the size last season and were unable to qualify for the conference tournament, finishing fifth in the North Division with an overall record of 13-15.

Head coach Tom Rawlings, who is in his third season, decided to keep his eyes on taller post players this offseason, due to the lack of the recruits in his first couple of seasons given they weren’t taller than 6 feet, 6 inches.

“The first couple of years, we really limited the size in the paint,” said Rawlings, “so, having somebody who can not only score on the block, but rebound as well. We got three kids now who are 6’7” and 6’8” and all of them have different skill sets, which is balancing things out well for us.”

Of those three post players, Dominik Oliveri, a 6-foot, 8-inch transfer from Western Washington University, has been a big presence on the court for Whatcom, putting up 12.9 points per game and leading the Northwest Athletic Conference in rebounds per game with 13.6.

Before Oliveri came to Whatcom County, the sophomore center started his basketball career in Spokane where he attended Lewis and Clark High School and was First Team All-Greater Spokane League his senior season, averaging 11.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.

“I wanted to look for a best-fit program,” Oliveri said. “I already began my education at Western and I wanted to continue that, so currently I am a dual-enrollment student. Instead of going home, I came to Whatcom and I have really enjoyed playing for Coach Rawlings. I wanted to go somewhere new away from Spokane and it has been great.”

It certainly has been a great start for both Oliveri and his team as they began their season with a 5-1 record, starting off with a 156-67 blowout over Northwest Indian College. Sophomore Grant Balvanz led all scorers with 44 points and broke a Whatcom men’s basketball record, making 14 three-point shots in a single game.

Oliveri says he comes from a city where basketball is considered a religion, as nearby Gonzaga University has been a dominating powerhouse at the NCAA Division I level the last 20 years, and the world’s largest 3-on-3 street basketball tournament is hosted in downtown Spokane every summer.

“I had season tickets to Gonzaga basketball games growing up, so I was strongly influenced by a lot of players that went through GU like J.P. Batista, Rob Sacre, and all other Gonzaga ‘bigs,’” Oliveri said. “I tried to take bits and pieces from how they played and began using them.”

Following the hot start of the season, the men’s team lost to Bellevue College 104-79 before hosting the Northwest Athletic Conference Tournament at Whatcom Pavilion, in which they consequently lost three games in three days.

After the Christmas break, Whatcom began the new year with a victory over Tacoma Community College 81-76. Sophomore Trazil Lane returned to the team for the first time all season because, according to Rawlings, he was not eligible at the beginning of the season. Lane scored a game high 21 points in that victory.

Lane was Second Team All-Northern Region in the Northwest Athletic conference last season averaging 18 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game as a freshman.

This season, Lane leads the team in scoring, putting up 22 points per game, and is second in rebounds per game with 8.

“Trazil is kind of a manchild,” Rawlings said, laughing, “He is a very athletic kid and is someone who played very well last season for us, so it is nice to get him back at this time of the year.”

Other returning players this season for the men’s team are guards Donovan Sellgren and Kenneth Savo, and forward Tevin Bayne. Both Bayne and Savo come from Alaska. Also from Alaska are forward Luke Beiser and center Garrett Fitt.

This is one of the most interesting things about this team as coach Rawlings just doesn’t recruit the local flavor around Whatcom County, but is willing to go out of state to recruit some top-notch players.

“Whatcom County has had a lot of talent through the years, we have chosen to go to Alaska specifically and have gotten numerous great players,” Rawlings said. “Many teams in the NWAC like to recruit all over the country, so what we do is nothing special. I have found for us that Alaska has been a good place for us and there is a lot of tough players from there.”

Whatcom opened conference play last week at home versus Olympic College and won 92-80. Three days later, they traveled down to Everett Community College where they lost 80-75, and in their most recent conference game, they beat Bellevue 93-85 on Jan. 16.

Currently the Orcas are 8-7 overall, 2-1 in conference play and are sitting in third place in the Northwest Athletic Conference North Division, behind Everett and Edmonds Community College.

There are a total of eight sophomores on this year’s team, and some of them will continue their basketball careers at the next level, while others will focus on their academics and pursue their intended majors.

Rawlings said he has grown to like this group and believes out of the teams he has coached in three years; this team has the potential to not only clinch a playoff spot but potentially make a deep run in postseason.

“Putting an NWAC banner up in our gym has been a goal for the last three years,” Rawlings said.

“I think this team has a great chance to do that, but the reality is that junior college is here for these guys to be able to move on to next level of college basketball,” Rawlings said. “Giving them the exposure at the conference tournament, extending their season and getting college coaches to look at them from the higher levels – I think we have been successful doing that the last three years, as we have six guys who are playing at the next level.”

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