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EGGERS: It's back-to-back state titles, and basketball mecca, for Lions

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: MATT SHERMAN - West Linn Lions players celebrate their repeat Class 6A title after Saturday night's win at Moda Center.As he took his turn at snipping a piece of the net that was barely hanging from one basket at the Moda Center Saturday night, Payton Pritchard inadvertently let it slip to the floor.

It was pretty close to the only miscue of the evening for the West Linn sophomore, whose brilliance shone brightly in the Lions' 67-56 victory over Sheldon for the state 6A championship.

Pritchard flirted with a triple-double, going for 21 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds with only two turnovers in a 32-minute masterpiece.

Backcourt mate Anthony Mathis, a 6-3 junior, also scored 21 points as West Linn (25-4) put the finishing piece on back-to-back state titles.

"The best guard tandem in the state, no doubt about it," said coach Eric Viuhkola, who has gone about building what is beginning to seem like a dynasty in his six seasons at the West Linn helm.

The Lions were more than a two-player team, though. There were seven seniors who helped provide leadership -- starters Ryan Shearmire, Hayden Coppedge and Kevin Edwards along with reserves CJ Sitton, Elijah Grant, Ty Cleland and Matt Wright.

"It's the best senior class in the history of West Linn," Viuhkola declared. "Four straight final eights, three straight final fours, two straight state championships. And as freshman, four of them were on the varsity."

The seniors have been together for nine years, beginning in fourth grade, when CJ's father, Charlie Sitton, began coaching them in youth ball. Charlie -- who won a state title as a junior at McMinnville in 1979 before embarking him on a Hall of Fame career at Oregon State and on to the NBA -- was there Saturday night, watching his son do his thing.

It was the 6-5, 235-pound CJ who was the last man on the dogpile at center court after the final horn, a celebration that had everyone with the Lions roaring.

"Feels great to have the seniors go off to college with a championship," Pritchard said. "We're one big family."

A year ago, West Linn upset No. 1-ranked Lake Oswego in the semifinals, then knocked off Central Catholic in the finals to claim the state crown.

"It was unexpected last year, a great ride," Viuhkola said. "I tried not to admit it, but there was pressure this year. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to prepare. When you're the hunted, it's different. That part makes it really sweet."

The Lions started the season 5-4, falling to Jefferson, White Station (Tenn.), Roman Catholic (Pa.) and Bishop Gorman (Nev.) in a minefield that prepared them for the rest of the way. They finished on a 20-game tear, winning by no fewer than eight points against 6A opposition.

"The thing I'm most proud of these guys is that every game, every practice, it was just like this," Viuhkola said, drawing a straight line in the air. "There was no entitlement. We were just going to come to work.

"We all had one goal. We won the league championship, but we didn't really celebrate. Our goal was to cut that net down right there tonight."

Viuhkola and his assistants have done a masterful job with a program that is now the gold standard for 6A programs in Oregon.

"We have the best coaches in the state," Pritchard said.

The key, Viuhkola insists, "is we've had really great players, and a great coaching staff that loves kids. We get after it, and we have a lot of fun."

"It's been a matter of everybody sticking together and doing what Coach 'V' tells us," Mathis said. "When we play together, I don't think anybody in the state can stop us."

"These kids are at the gym at 6:30 in the morning, in there again after school," Viuhkola said. "They'll eat, do their homework, and they're back in the gym. It's like triples all year long. "They deserve this. They've outworked everybody."

Leading the way has been the 5-11 Pritchard, who had his button on "go" from start to finish Saturday night.

"He works harder than anybody I know," CJ Sitton said. "Every day, he's in the gym shooting. Every morning, after practice, every day. He's a leader now. He'll be a great leader in the future."

The Lions lose a plethora of seniors. But they'll return their two best players in Pritchard and Mathis, along with sophomores Jaydon Grant -- like Elijah, son of ex-Blazer Brian Grant -- Colin Shearmire, Cody Coppedge and Will Matthiessen and junior David Pulaski.

"They'll be a pretty experienced team," Sitton said. "You'll be surprised how good they are next year."

Said Vuhkola: "We're going to be in the mix. We're used to being here now. That helps."

Jesuit became the first 6A team to claim four straight state championships by accomplishing the feat from 2009-12. West Linn is halfway home to duplicating.

"I really take it one year at a time," Pritchard said. "I don't want to think too far ahead. If I do that, I might jinx myself a little bit.

"I have two under my belt, but I couldn't have done it without this team, this community. This is like basketball mecca right now in Oregon."

Pritchard, and each of his teammates, have a piece of the net to prove it.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers



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