Thumps reverberate down a darkened hallway at Centralia College Wednesday afternoon. Twenty yards down the hall and through a doorway reveals the culprit. Six Centralia College men’s basketball players are in the college’s gym, shooting, rebounding their shots and running back to shoot again.
The players are playing a game of 21 against each other, all on separate hoops with their own ball. The winner doesn’t have to run full-court sprints afterward. Four of the five are new freshman recruits, including guard Kayden Kelly, who just graduated from W.F. West seven months ago. Standing off to the side is Head Coach Jason Moir, barking orders to his players as they work furiously.
There is no defense, no contact and everyone in the gym, including Associate Head Coach Jonathan McMillan, is wearing a mask. Three of the five players live together in the same apartment, but are still required to have their own ball and use their own hoop at practice.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Moir said. “They live in the same house, they eat together, they play video games, they study together. But we’re following the best that we can to stay within the guidelines.”
This is the reality for sports at sub-professional level in the state right now, and Moir and McMillan are working diligently to prepare their team for a season unlike anyone has seen.
The Trailblazers are coming off a two-week quarantine and re-entry plan, also known as the Gray Phase, part of the Northwest Athletic Conference’s five-phase return-to-play guidelines.
Players are required to track and record every place they travel using an online spreadsheet. It helps determine whether or not players are at risk if there is an outbreak somewhere in the county. And if any player contracts COVID-19 during these phases, the team has to start all the way back at phase one.
The Blazers are currently in the Red Phase, which allows small, group training based on local health authority restrictions. That means the Blazers can workout in groups of six or less, and Moir has his team broken up into two groups that come in at separate times each day.
The Blazers are currently on their fourth day of practices since reaching the Red Phase, and they haven’t practiced together as a full team since just before Thanksgiving. They already went through some of the phases in fall 2020, but were reset when the college went into winter break.
This week, Feb. 1, the team will be starting the Yellow Phase, which allows for full team practices with social-distancing measures in place. The Blazers will be able to have up to three players at each basket, which will let them perform rebounding and passing drills.
Until then, the team’s first group of six starts its day in the afternoon with 30 minutes of warmups and ball-handling drills. The next 20 minutes consists of shooting drills for each player at their own basket.
For Kelly, who is winded after running and shooting non-stop for nearly an hour while wearing a face mask, the guidelines are worth being able to get back into the gym.
“It’s been a long time waiting,” Kelly said. “Knowing the guys and not being able to do anything with them sucks, but now that we’re starting to get back into it, it’s good. We’re excited. If wearing a mask means we can get back in the gym and practice, we’re willing to do it.”
Kelly is part of a large and talented freshmen class that Moir and McMillan have constructed after losing 11 players from the 2019-20 season. Perhaps the biggest loss is now-sophomore Kobe Matsen, who decided to focus solely on baseball this year. The 6-foot-7 forward was named the West Region’s Freshman of the Year last season after averaging 11.7 points and 6.4 boards per game.
Some other big-time newcomers are Colby White, a high-energy point guard who averaged 19.4 points per game for Central Kitsap before earning South Sound Conference MVP. Kyler Kelso averaged 14 points and seven rebounds as a senior at South Kitsap. Jeremiah Judge was one of the top prep players in the Tampa, Florida area.
The Blazers also nabbed two Franklin Pierce players in 6-foot-3 Claudell Quinland, a first-team all-leaguer, and Abraham Konan, a 2019 graduate. Also joining the group is Wendell Davis Jr., a second-team all-league pick from Bellarmine Prep.
“With the incoming freshmen, we really feel good about those guys,” Moir said. “
The only two returners are 6-foot-4 forward Fano Arceo-Hansen, a 2019 Toledo graduate, and 6-foot-7 post Jimmy Harding, a third-year redshirt. Arceo-Hansen was an Associate Press 2B All-State selection and the Central 2B League MVP for the Indians.
“It’s nice to be out here and playing ball, so can’t complain,” Arceo-Hansen said. “I’m hoping defense will be our strength. Defense to offense, that’s the easiest way to play basketball. Get lots of steals, run transition, easy buckets, stuff like that.”
Following next week’s Yellow Phase, the Blazers will move into the Green Phase, which includes full team practices and games with the reopening of gyms. After that is the Blue Phase, which is a return to normal operations once treatment and vaccinations are available.
Schedules for the 2021 season are still in development, but games are tentatively set to begin April 2. As of now, Centralia College’s games are slated to be on Tuesdays and Friday of each week. The Blazers will compete against five of the seven teams in their usual West Region. Those include Grays Harbor, Lower Columbia, Pierce, Tacoma and Highline. The Blazers will play each of the five teams three times, for a total of 15 games. There will be no NWAC tournament or playoffs.
The NWAC approved a waiver Nov. 9 that allows athletes to not be charged a year of eligibility for the 2020-21 season, regardless of the amount of games/matches played.
“This year is really just trying to develop our players,” Moir said. “These games don’t count against us, there’s no tournament. It’s not like the usual season where we know what we’re playing for; to get to the tournament and we want to win.
“It’s really saying to these guys, ‘OK, this year is a free year. What can we do to be the best we can be moving into our true freshmen year?’ We’re excited about the year, just to see where it goes.”