South Albany High has finally made ‘em believe.
Long before their breakthrough performance in last week’s OSAA 5A boys basketball state playoffs, the Rebels had overwhelming faith in themselves and second-year coach Justin Smith. The team’s mantra — make ‘em believe — is often reflected in their aggressive and passionate style of play.
Tuesday afternoon at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, the eighth-seeded Rebels (19-5) will open the state tournament against No. 1 Wilsonville (24-1) at 1:30 p.m. The Wildcats are the defending champions while South is making its first quarterfinal appearance in program history.
Win or lose against the titleholders, South has already turned its community and Mid-Willamette Conference rivals into believers.
“I just think South Albany for so long has been a program that’s been looked at as not highly successful,” first-team all-MWC junior Jake Costello said. “When we walk into the gym, everybody expects that they’re going to beat us. We take pride in no longer being that team, and I think that’s what that slogan means to us.”
Added senior Tanner Hemzacek: “The motto basically ties into our community. We’ve been so bad for so many years and we’ve been trying to change the program around here. This year and last year have been a big step and this year’s not done yet, but we’re still trying to take the biggest step we can for future teams and future players. We are basically just trying to make people believe that South Albany is great and we are trying to set that stepping stone.”
Smith, who is 32-18 in his two seasons at the helm, borrowed the phrase from Bo Ryan’s 2014-15 Wisconsin team.
Powered by lightly-recruited center Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers upset undefeated Kentucky 71-64 in the NCAA Final Four. Wisconsin later fell to Duke, 68-63, in the title game.
A few weeks after the Final Four, Smith landed the job at South.
“Wisconsin had ‘make ‘em believe’ across their (warmup) shirts,” Smith said. “They weren’t your typical top-level team. Wisconsin was someone that not everyone believed was as good as they were, and I just saw that and really latched onto it. I felt like we could change this program to where people would have to respect us and make it where we were successful year in and year out.”
Smith found immediate success at South, leading the team to a 13-13 record and a postseason appearance last year. The Rebels had won just six total games the previous two seasons.
With three returning starters in Costello, Hemzacek and Jaden Guilford, South got off to a 9-0 start and finished third in the MWC. Home playoff wins over Ashland (52-40) and Putnam (50-46) propelled the team to Gill.
“He reenergized us,” Costello said of Smith. “I remember when I first sat in that interview room with him, as soon as that interview was over I knew he was our guy and we were going to have success with him. First of all he’s confident in what he does, and second of all he is really good at getting us to buy into what he wants us to do. I think a cumulation of those things makes us successful on the court.”
Originally from Kansas, Smith and his family moved to the mid-valley about four years ago. He took over the South program after one-year stints at Salem Academy (2013-14) and Central Linn (2014-15).
Smith has also served as an assistant football coach for the Rebels since 2014.
“He kind of already got to know some of us during football,” said Hemzacek, a second-team all-MWC wide receiver. “And last year, he really kind of bonded with the team and got to know us personally and make a personal connection with all of us, which really helps the team. Because if you can’t connect with your coach, then how are you supposed to respect what he’s saying? Since he really bonds with us, we respect and trust everything he is saying. A team is built around trust, trusting each other as players and trust in your coach.”
During his first summer with the basketball team, Smith quickly realized that the cupboard was far from bare.
The Rebels were undersized in the post but possessed great athleticism at every position. Smith just needed to make them believe.
“Getting this job two years ago, one of the first things we talked about to the kids was as a program, we are going to win state championships,” Smith said. “That is our goal and that is what we’re looking to do. To give ourselves a shot in the second year of the program is pretty special.
“It’s a testament to all the coaches on this staff and a testament to the kids that we have. They have bought in and they’ve put in a lot of work.”
South knows it will face a massive challenge in Wilsonville, which features Oregon State signee Zach Reichle.
The 6-foot-5 Reichle, a talented wing scorer, is the reigning 5A player of the year.
But the Rebels don’t mind assuming the role of King David. If anything, they thrive in it.
“Coming into the season, our main goal was state championship,” Hemzacek said. “The more that we won, the more that we realized that we can do this. We hit a few bumps in our league with Crescent Valley, (Corvallis) and Silverton but once we got to playoffs, just like March Madness, everybody can win. You always see the top fall to the bottom, and we’ve been talking about that right now.
“We’ll always be the underdog no matter who we play because we are South Albany. That’s how everybody thinks of us. But I think when they underestimate us, that’s where we have an advantage.”