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There’s nothing groundbreaking about testing a team with adversity early in the year.

It’s a philosophy employed by most competitive programs, and the good ones usually recover from it, better prepared for those crucial stretches when stakes are high. The bad ones, well, don’t.

For Greg Rahn, head coach of the Pacific Union College men’s basketball team, that thinking has been crucial to building the Pioneers up from a doormat to California Pacific Conference contender.

“I try to drag them through the mud early with tough competition so we hit adversity early and learn how to deal with it,” he said. “So when we see it in league, we can handle it better.”

And make no mistake – PUC plays a grueling exhibition schedule. The Pioneers (7-9 overall, 4-3 CalPac) often play multiple divisions higher, facing NCAA teams like Fresno State or San Jose State that have broader athletic departments and scholarship opportunities which significantly elevate talent.

Those games are a necessarily evil because they also help raise money for the athletic department. The opposing program usually cuts a check to cover the damages accrued from hours of travel for a spectacular loss, and the Pioneers return to Angwin with a little more funding and – hopefully – some competitive experiences to lean on.

During Rahn’s four-year tenure, which has been the most successful stretch in the program’s 14 years in the NAIA, winning more games than the previous seven combined, only two of his teams have come out of nonconference play with a .500 or better record – excluding exhibition games. The best mark was last year’s CalPac championship team that went 4-1 and 4-5 with exhibition losses added in.

This season PUC went 3-6 and 4-10 if the higher-division games are included. The Pioneers actually pulled off the biggest nonconference upset in program history, defeating San Francisco State by three points in an exhibition contest on Nov. 25.

Aside from that, Rahn said it’s been an “interesting” season after last week’s 85-77 loss to rival Cal State Maritime. For better or worse, this group has been forced to play under the shadow of last year’s team, which earned the school’s first CalPac championship in any sport.

That roster was filled with seniors, so that meant this year’s team had to assume a whole new identity. The returners established a standard they refused to compromise on, and the aftereffects of that have made the balance between trust and “hero ball” an ongoing saga.

Need evidence? Just look at the assist numbers.

The Pioneers posted 10 or more assists in four out of their five wins in January, going 5-2 in their most successful stretch of the campaign. Four of those wins were in CalPac play, leaving them tied for third with Maritime.

So when the ball gets stuck and the Pioneers’ fast-paced, defensive-minded style gets reduced to isolation plays and one-shot possessions, wins are harder to come by. Last Thursday’s loss at Maritime underlined that reality, with three total assists in a wire-to-wire defeat.

“We were really moving the ball a lot more (during the win streak),” Hubbard said after the loss to the Keelhaulers. “Tonight we struggled with that. I mean, having one assist in a half, that doesn’t get it done for us. I definitely put it on myself too – gotta share the ball more … Once we get that going we’ll be fine.”

Of course, any team will struggle to win when there’s no ball movement. And even if the assist numbers don’t spike, PUC is still finding a way to win games.

The Pioneers will likely lean on leading scorer Jayson Marquez (13.5 points per game), the team’s lone all-conference returner, Hubbard (11.6 ppg), Brandon Franklin (9.4 ppg), and Noel Briones (7.3 ppg). Those four returners represent the senior core of this year’s team and each average over 23 minutes a night.

Jeremiah Blandin, a junior transfer from Santa Monica City College, has also emerged as a key contributor in CalPac play, seeing an increase in minutes (25.0) that’s led to an increase in production. The 6-foot-6 forward is scoring 10.5 ppg over the last six contests, and leads the team in rebounding (9.2) during that span.

However they will have to replace the production from Blandin’s teammate at Santa Monica, senior Chris Camper, who is no longer with the team. He was averaging 12.4 ppg and 17.2 in the conference prior to an absence from the box score in Saturday’s road win at UC Merced. Rahn requested to keep the nature of Camper’s departure private.

Regardless, bouncing back from a deflating loss to the Keelhaulers with a signature win over the second-place Bobcats is an encouraging sign that the Pioneers’ upward trend could continue.

“Are we a flash in the pan or we serious?” said Rahn. “There’s a lot we can improve on.”

PUC heads into the second half of the CalPac schedule currently a game behind Merced in the standings, and two behind first-place Antelope Valley. This week is a two-game home stand against Benedictine-Mesa Thursday and Embry-Riddle on Saturday.

The rematch against Maritime will be on Pacific Union’s senior night, Feb. 17, at Pacific Auditorium.

The top four teams advance to the conference playoffs in Vallejo next month and, if the Pioneers maintain their ground, they’ve shown they can catch fire when it matters most and beat any team on any night.


Sports Reporter

Yousef has been a sports reporter at the Napa Valley Register since February 2015, and hosts the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.