Benefield: Piner-Montgomery boys tip off NBL-Oak basketball season

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“No paint.”

“No paint, no paint, no paint.”

Eight times, taking nary a breath in between, Piner boys basketball coach Mike Erickson sent his team this message at a recent practice: “No paint.”

I’m pretty sure that means he wants the Prospectors to keep the bigger Montgomery Vikings out of the key Friday night. But here’s where it gets sticky: Keep the Vikings out of the paint and they just may well kick it out it to senior Harvey Rouleau, perhaps the sharpest shooter in the Redwood Empire.

In short, the Prospectors will have their hands full in the North Bay League-Oak Division opener for both teams Friday. And, by the sound of it, Piner is ready.

“Harvey’s big. Monty’s going to be a tough game, but we’re ready for it,” four-year Prospector point guard Scott Erickson said. “I’ve been ready to play them since I was a freshman. It’s time to go.”

This game, and it should be a good one, marks the opening round of the new-look NBL. Piner, with heaps of varsity experience and gritty style, has been bumped up from the former Sonoma County League to the NBL-Oak Division, where the Prospectors will play the likes of Montgomery, Cardinal Newman and a Santa Rosa High team that has put together an early 10-2 record.

But Scott Erickson said the Prospectors are more than ready. He’s practically bouncing as he says it. Walking into Montgomery’s gym? A fairly inhospitable place if you aren’t a Viking? Bring it, he said.

“I’ve never played Monty, I’ve never played in that gym before and it’s time. It’s time to do it,” he said.

“Since freshman year our team wanted to play against the big dogs, Newman and Monty, and this year we finally get a chance to do it. I feel like we can compete and win that division,” he said.

The Prospectors bring more than grit to the game.

Senior Chris Gutierrez provides some inside muscle and regularly gets into double digits in both points and rebounds, Mike Erickson said.

“He battles around the basket,” he said. “He’s doing a real good job.”

Gutierrez was tasked with guarding Healdsburg’s big man Trey Chapman in the Prospectors’ last-second 41-40 loss to the ‘Hounds Saturday and held him largely in check, Erickson said.

But top to bottom, the Prospectors will have their hands full with a taller Montgomery squad that has put together a 7-3 record, defended their Brett Callan Memorial Tournament title and battled with some pretty good programs.

On top of that, Montgomery coach Zac Tiedeman said the Vikings were not playing up to snuff early on.

“We are still figuring ourselves out,” he said. “I don’t think we played well early in the year. I think we are starting to hopefully find our footing now. This group is starting to jell a little bit, understand their roles.”

Rouleau is coming off his tournament-MVP performance in the Brett Callan tournament, where he put up an average of 24 points per game, including sinking six 3-pointers in the opening game against Napa.

“He has a high IQ,” Tiedeman said. “He can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball. He really sees the game.”

The Vikings also boast junior shooter Brandon Lucas and the 6-foot-6 inch Logan McKinney, the Vikings’ “rim protector,” according to Tiedeman.

Toss in seniors Eli Camarillo and Emosi Tuinabewa, and the Vikings are stocked to the brim with talent.

So much so that when I asked Tiedeman for his likely lineup against Piner, he demurred. He’s still tinkering. So abundant is the Vikings’ roster in talent, he has the freedom to move parts around.

But that may also be, in part, because Tiedeman recognizes the potency of Piner’s squad.

“I expect them to be physical, quick, aggressive. They compete at a high level,” he said. “We’ve got to match that energy, match that toughness.”

If the Vikings come in lax, he said, Piner “will expose you. They play extremely hard. Especially on the defensive end, they play bigger than their size.”

The Prospectors’ Gutierrez agreed.

“All we have to do is box out, talk on ‘D’ and that makes up for all the height,” he said.

Expect aggressive, physical, in-your-face defense from the Prospectors.

“We play tough,” Scott Erickson said. “We play bigger than we are.”

And that’s where Mike Erickson’s “No paint” admonition comes into play. The Prospectors expect to press some, “take some gambles a little bit,” according to Erickson, and do their best not to let the taller Vikings set up half court all night long.

It’s a challenge the Prospectors relish.

“They want to play good teams, good competition, see what they can do,” Mike Erickson said.

They drew a tough test on opening night. Montgomery at Montgomery?

“It’s definitely going to be a tough game because Montgomery is known to have big crowds, so that’s going to be a little bit intimidating, but I think coach Erickson is really getting us ready for those type of games,” said junior guard Jared Saddler.

But ask Scott Erickson about starting the new division schedule and kicking off against a Montgomery squad that has to be considered a front-runner for title contention, and he’s nearly giddy.

“We are not intimidated. We are ready to go play the big dogs Newman and Monty and show them what we got,” he said.

Last year’s North Bay League was wild, with surprise wins, OT thrillers and a three-way logjam at the top that was eventually won by Windsor. Expect more of the same this season. And it begins Friday.

“I think the whole league is wide open, more than it has ever been,” Tiedeman said. “It’s going to be a dogfight for sure.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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