Union boys basketball team to play in state quarterfinals Thursday night
There’s the saying: Get with the program.
No one had to tell these guys that at Union High School.
Because this is the reality: These guys ARE the program.
Nope. No stars in the bunch. Just senior leaders who kept working, waiting for their time to shine.
Thursday night, Jamison Limbrick, Evan Eschels, and Porter Hill should all be in the starting lineup for the team that is seeded No. 3 in Washington Class 4A boys basketball.
These three likely will be playing four quarters of quarterfinal basketball for the Titans.
A year ago, these guys were getting four quarters of junior varsity action. Maybe every once in a while they would get a minute or two in garbage time on varsity. But they were JV players.
Tonight, they are prime-time players who have inspired their coaches and teammates.
“You just have to stick to your grind and believe in yourself,” Limbrick said.
“For me,” Eschels said, “it was about never giving up. ‘My time is going to come. I just have to be ready for it.’”
“Focus on yourself. If you get all wrapped up in comparing yourself to other people, it doesn’t get you anywhere,” Hill said. “Put your head down and work. That will get you a lot farther.”
Solid advice from players who were virtual no-names outside of Union who are now starting for a final eight team.
Bryson Metz, the 4A Greater St. Helens League player of the year, and Yanni Fassillis, a junior, often fill out the score sheet for Union games. Those guys can score in bunches.
Limbrick, Eschels, and Hill do all of the big things that aren’t so big in a typical high school boxscore.
Hill already has the school record for most charges taken in a season. Limbrick is a handful of steals from that school record. Eschels, a second-team, all-leaguer like Hill, is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds a game.
It is not all that rare to go from JV to varsity and make significant contributions in one year. That’s how basketball programs operate. Players graduate, so the next wave of talent must step up in order to succeed. Still, it is a rare for three seniors to do it, to go from playing as freshman, sophomores, and juniors on the sub-varsity teams.
That’s what makes this trio so special for Union coach Blake Conley.
“For these guys, they all had a little bit different paths throughout their first three years of high school,” Conley said. “They ended up thriving in the roles that they created for themselves.”
Hill needed to put on weight. At 6-4, he was too skinny to excel. Conley noticed Hill hitting the weight room and turning himself into a contender for a starting role.
Limbrick and Eschels also transformed themselves, Conley said. They went from being solid basketball players to solid, athletic basketball players.
None of them rested just because it was their senior year, figuring they would have significant roles.
“I thought my spot on varsity was probably clear,” Limbrick said of his thinking going into this season. “But you can never stop trying to improve yourself.”
Still, there was a chance for frustration to sit in for these three, playing JV as juniors.
“Just the possibility was enough for me,” Hill said of his reasons for sticking with the program even though there was no personal glory in those first three seasons. “I was always told, ‘You’re too small. You don’t weigh enough.’ I used that to motivate me. You can do whatever you put your mind to.”
Eschels was injured early in his junior season. That hurt any chance of playing substantial varsity minutes.
“I just wanted success for the team,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about my time, my minutes.”
It took a lot of time for Limbrick, too.
“I knew if I continued to put in the work … I’d get to make an impact as a varsity player,” he said.
Union is assured of at least two more games. (Yes, the Titans expect to play three and play for a trophy on Saturday.) With just a few steals away from the record, Limbrick has got a shot.
“I can’t ‘go’ for the steals record,” Limbrick said. “It will come to me if I continue playing the rules of defense right. Can’t be gambling just for that record.”
Still, the record is important to him. He knows he is not the 20-point scorer. He understands his role.
“You can never have an off defensive game. You always have to be locked in,” he said.
Hill sacrifices his body for the team. Often.
“I never thought I would be capable of being the best at some category,” Hill said of taking charges. “It’s a game-changing play. But everybody hears about assists or scoring. No one really hears about the charge. It’s kind of behind the scenes.”
It takes a different mindset, Hill said, to continuously put oneself in position to be run over by an opponent.
“You have to have the IQ to be in the right place at the right time,” Hill said.
Yes, sometimes it hurts to get crushed.
“Or, I guess you could say be at the wrong place at the right time.”
Eschels is scoring in double figures and pulling down a bunch of rebounds a game. It might have been a long-term plan but this was the plan.
“I feel our coaching staff plays a huge role in that,” Eschels said.
He remembers Conley telling him to get ready for 2022.
“He always believed in our group, from the eighth-grade summer,” Eschels said.
And this group embraced being no-names outside of the program.
“Nobody is going to know who we are,” Eshels said. “We’re going to be the darkhorse.”
Just about everyone knows about Union basketball, though. This is the seventh consecutive state tournament appearance for the program.
Limbrick said he was all-in with the program from the very beginning. Now, he is proud to say that the traditions of the program, the bond between the players and coaches, all of that has been there for all four years.
“You hear Union, you think of winning,” Hill said. “It’s crazy to think I can be part of this team, let alone contribute to what it’s been. It’s been so fun to hang out with these guys. It’s just been great.”
“It’s the culture,” Eschels said. “It’s the culture built up from years past. The seniors build it. The next group’s seniors expect the same thing. My senior year, me, Jamison, and Porter, four-year (program) players, we’re keeping that same culture and teaching it to the kids below us.”
The Union way.