Back in the Hunt

The men’s basketball team posts a strong season and eyes a future conference championship.

The men’s basketball team posts a strong season and eyes a future conference championship. Back in 1995, when Dinari Foreman wore No. 34 for the Pioneers and was the dominant player in the Northwest Conference, Lewis & Clark won a share of the conference championship.

Nearly two decades later, as the Pios’ head coach, Foreman has the school back in the hunt for Northwest Conference supremacy and a spot in the national tournament. In his third season at the helm, Lewis & Clark continued to make progress toward those goals. The team went 17-9 overall, 10-6 in the conference.

The good news for Lewis & Clark is that nine players return next year, and the Pioneers may enter the 2014-15 season as the team most likely to end Whitworth’s streak of five straight Northest Conference championships.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm because we feel like the only place for us to go is up,” says Bradley Carter, one of the team’s forwards. “We have a great group returning and have guys that will fill in the voids that will be created with the seniors leaving.”

All signs point to the possibility that Lewis & Clark can take the next step. The Pioneers closed out the season with five wins in its final seven games. Although they were knocked out of the conference tournament by Whitworth in Spokane on February 27, the Pios dealt the conference champ a 73-70 overtime loss on Palatine Hill six days earlier.

Among the nine players eligible to return next season, Carter (6’7”), Justin Leathers (6’6”), and Mat Collins (6’6”) are an improving trio of front-line players who could give Lewis & Clark the rebounding and high-percentage inside scoring that is crucial to the outcome of tight games. “If we’re not the strongest inside team next year with Brad, Justin, and Mat, we’ll be near the top,” Foreman says. “I go to sleep feeling good.”

Six of the team’s top eight scorers will be back, including Kurt Parker, who led the team with 12.1 points per game.

Foreman says he also feels a growing sense that administrative and faculty support—as well as the student experience at Lewis & Clark—is making the program more attractive to recruits. Although he can’t name names just yet without violating NCAA rules, the coach indicated that the next recruiting class was coming together nicely. 

“Let me tell you, I’ve been part of this college as a student and coach and worked in various areas of the campus. Seeing what’s going on with our campus community since President Glassner has been here, I’m telling you I don’t think I could ask for anything more in terms of support,” Foreman says. “I’m a straight shooter, and I couldn’t be more excited. Recruits are seeing what’s on our campus, and we have some high-level young men interested in the program.”

The current players also feel the momentum. “Who doesn’t want to be part of a winning culture?” asked Justin Leathers, a native of Bakersfield, California, who will be a senior next year. “We’ve gotten better each year I’ve been here.”

The 2013-14 season was marked by stretches of winning play at the start and finish of the conference schedule, plus a four-game losing streak in the middle.

The Pioneers won five of their first six NWC games before embarking on the toughest road trip of the year—and of the most difficult in all of Division III. The Whitman-Whitworth sereis begins with a six-hour bus ride to Walla Walla for a Friday game, and then it’s three more hours on the bus to Spokane to play on Saturday. Whitman beat the Pioneers by 17 points, Whitworth by 16.

“We got a little lazy somewhere in there,” says Jason Luhnow, a sophomore from Lake Oswego, Oregon. “We lost to Whitman and Whitworth and dwelled on it. Then we came home and lost two.”

At that point, the Pioneers buckled down. There was a 10-day layoff before a home game against Linfield, which Lewis & Clark won 79-70. After that came a crucial stretch of five games in nine days, and the Pios won four of them—including home wins over Whitman and Whitworth. Foreman called all of the conference wins “huge.”

The three seniors on the team—Connor Freeberg, Quentin Sims, and Ben Neves—helped shape the current culture under Foreman. Freeberg and Sims were four-year letter winners who played in the conference tournament all four years. Neves, who played for two years at Lewis & Clark, was a backup point guard who offered the team strong leadership.

“We will miss all three,” says Foreman. “Those guys led pretty darn well. They’re graduating on time with high GPAs. They were the first to get to practice and the last to leave. Our younger players see this and learn what the standard is. The seniors nurtured and cared for those guys.”

That continuity, and forward progress, could set the stage for a return to the top of the conference. Lewis & Clark last won a share of the title in 2007 and last won an outright Northwest Conference championship in 2002.

“The next step is a conference championship,” Leathers says. “We showed that we can beat those teams that were seen as unbeatable and who dominated our league. Our time is coming.” —by Doug Binder