ANGWIN — When the NAIA Div. 2 men’s basketball preseason conference rankings were released several weeks ago, Pacific Union College took notice. The Pioneers were picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in the California Pacific Conference, a projection that the Pioneers immediately internalized.
While PUC brings on 11 new players a year after finishing a middling 10-14 overall and 7-7 in the CalPac, they feel their team is capable of far more than their preseason rank indicates.
So, the Pioneers decided to use the pick as motivation.
“We welcome that,” said junior guard Albert Waters III last Sunday. “Picking us seven out of eight, it’s like they’re laughing in our face, but we welcome that. Any motivation we can get, we’ll take.”
Now, instead of breaking their huddles with their regular chant of “One, two, three, PUC; four, five, six, family” the Pioneers changed the chant to “five, six, seven, family,” ending it on “seven” to reflect that ranking and keep it in constant memory.
The Pioneers hope that that motivation translates to wins this season, one in which they have set lofty expectations for themselves that they fully intend to reach.
“I think this season has big things in store for us,” Waters III said. “Our goal is to win the conference and we truly believe we can do it.”
PUC is off to a 1-2 start to the season following their 86-80 loss to No. 12 Oregon Tech last Sunday. The Pioneers also dropped their season-opener to NAIA Div. I school William Jessup 102-77 three weeks ago, but rebounded against Eastern Oregon for an 84-78 win.
Mostly recently, they fell 107-87 in an exhibition game against Humboldt State.
While they do need to replace their top four scorers from last season, their new addition are fitting in quite well. Junior Elijah Green, a transfer from Los Medanos College in the East Bay Area, currently leads the team in scoring at 22 points per game, while Waters III, a junior transfer also from Los Medanos, is second at 18.7 per game.
Waters III took a redshirt year last season with the Pioneers, which makes him one of the few returners from last year’s team. The Pioneers lost a total of 10 players from last year’s team that finished tied for third in the CalPac.
Still, fifth-year head coach Greg Rahn likes the progress his team made during preseason workouts, but adds the caveat that with so many new players, adjusting to each other and PUC’s play style will take time.
“I think we’re doing pretty well,” he said. “It’s a big learning curve because we have a lot of guys who come from different systems but I think they’ve bought in, which I love. We’ve got a good family atmosphere, the culture is good, can’t speak highly enough about them. I think as the season progresses we’ll get much better.”
Rahn and some of his players looked at their six-point loss to nationally ranked Oregon Tech on Sunday as a sign that they can exceed their preseason expectations.
“Our guys fought,” Rahn said. “No. 12 in the nation, on paper we aren’t supposed to be with them right now but we hung in there and showed what we could do.”
“We’re motivated now,” added Green, who finished with a game-high 27 points against Oregon Tech. “We got a taste of some competitive basketball. We’re much hungrier now.”
The Pioneers will need that hunger to succeed in what Rahn considers an underrated and dangerous conference in the CalPac.
“I think this conference has gotten widely competitive and much better,” Rahn said. “So I’m not just going to speak for our team but I think the whole conference is underrated and I think a lot of teams will show that this year.”
The only CalPac team to qualify for the postseason last year was league champ Antelope Valley, who was quickly bounced in the National Championship Tournament by eventual champ Indiana Wesleyan.
Senior Ben Jazuk remembers when PUC competed at that level two seasons ago. It was during his junior year that the Pioneers made a Cinderella run to the National Tournament after going on a run through the CalPac playoffs to steal the league crown.
Jazuk took last season off as he weighed his options for his future, but elected to spend his final year of eligibility playing for the Pioneers. He said that the narrative surrounding PUC to open this year is similar to the one that the Pioneers observed two years ago.
“They picked us to finish sixth and we ended up winning the championship,” Jazuk said. “This year, they picked us seventh, so it’s kind of the same story line. Like my junior year, we’re just showing up every day, working hard, trying to be the best we can be, and I see it with this group, for sure.”
It’s a long way to the finish line and PUC has a lot of work to do to get the point they want to be at. But whatever shortcomings the Pioneers have, they make up for it with their confidence, and the belief that they can prove a lot of people wrong this year.
“I feel like we have a big statement to make when conference hits,” Green said. “It’s going to be personal.”