In Burns, ‘business as usual’ for top teams

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By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

BURNS — For the first time all night, Trace Tiller was in a rhythm. With a swagger, he trotted the ball across midcourt before a quick stutter-step sprung him free of his defender. Just in front of the home student section and band, the Burns High senior rose for a long 3-pointer that splashed through the net.

He left his right hand hanging above his head as he turned and nodded to the students jumping and cheering in the grandstands and rocking the intimate Burns High gym, challenging the sturdiness of the wood beams and fiberglass that arched high above.

Tiller, and his Hilanders teammates, basked in those roars, some players dancing down the floor after big plays. These moments have been rare over the past month at the high school in remote Eastern Oregon. On Jan. 2, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters some 30 miles away began, bringing waves of local and national media to this town of about 2,700. Eight members of the occupying group were arrested and a ninth was shot and killed by law enforcement on Jan. 26. So many distractions have surrounded Burns. Schools were closed for a week, forcing the Burns High teams to find alternate practice facilities — from the nearby bus barn to Crane High School 30 or so miles away — and to relocate home basketball games to neutral sites.

Somehow amid all this chaos, the girls and boys basketball teams, respectively ranked No. 3 and No. 5 in Class 2A, and the wrestling squad, a traditional power, have not only maintained a level of normalcy that has been praised by coaches and parents, but they have sustained a high level of success. Somehow, the occupation that disrupted the world of Burns residents had little to no effect on the Hilanders.

“It was difficult to block it out outside of basketball,” conceded Tiller, who on this Friday night scored 18 points in Burns’ 46-32 win against Union. “But once we hit the (gym) floor, it was in the back of the mind. We didn’t think about it, didn’t talk about it. Basketball and the ‘W’ was the main thing.”

Of course, some days were easier than others to block out the surrounding noise. In early January, the Harney County School District closed schools for a week because of the occupation. The basketball teams practiced at Suntex Elementary School in Riley, about 30 miles west of Burns, and at Crane High School, about 30 miles to the east. The Hilanders’ scheduled home games for Jan. 2 and Jan. 8 were played more than 100 miles away at Vale High School and at Grant Union High School in John Day, some 70 miles to the north.

“It’s been the other teams being worried about coming here, them reading media things, maybe Facebook things, and they kind of think we’ve been taken over, which we really haven’t,” said Burns High athletic director Paula Toney. She chuckled, adding, “We don’t have armed guards at our doors. That’s the first question I get asked: ‘Do you have armed guards at the doors?’ It’s like, ‘No.’ We’re trying to keep it as normal as possible here. And it’s pretty normal.”

As simple as maintaining the routine may sound, there is no taking away from how Hilanders athletes and coaches have made that happen. That includes the Burns High wrestling team.

Between 2002 and 2011, the Hilanders won 10 straight Class 3A team wrestling titles. The program has placed in the top eight in each of the past four seasons, including an eighth-place finish at last year’s 2A/1A state meet. Over the past month, Burns has competed at tournaments in Bend, Redmond, Madras, John Day and, this past weekend, Idaho. And during the week of school closures, the Hilanders practiced in a heated shop at the nearby bus barn just down the road from the high school.

“You don’t need much for wrestling, maybe just a mat and shoes,” Burns wrestling coach Joseph Lucas said. “You just put your nose to the grindstone and get going on it.”

What the bus barn did offer was isolation, something Lucas’ athletes were not afforded in mid-January. The Burns High gym hosted a community gathering, one that occupation leaders Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan attended. A partition split the gym in half: the gathering on one side and the wrestling team training on the other. Was it disruptive? Of course, Lucas emphasized. (Fortunately, he added, that was the only meeting at the gym.)

“Instances like that, it can be a challenge,” Lucas said. “We don’t pretend that there’s nothing going on and bury our head in the sand and close our eyes. But at the same time, we’re doing our best to provide these young student-athletes with a sense of normalcy, with a routine, and keep things in balance and keep things in perspective, give them their usual athletic outlet.”

Lucas said he tried to stick to the wrestlers’ normal routines, yet he was unsure if he actually needed to do so.

“It’s not like this hasn’t affected their families or folks’ parents aren’t involved on one side or the other (of the occupation issue),” he said. “But when they’re at practice, they’re there ready to wrestle and get better. That’s been nice. And I think that’s the best thing for them.”

The girls basketball team, which was state runner-up last season, is 21-1 overall — 12-0 since the occupation began — and is currently 11-0 in the Wapiti League. The Burns boys have enjoyed similar success, winning all 13 games since Jan. 2 to climb to 19-3 overall and 11-0 in league play.

Brandon McMullen, the Burns High girls basketball coach, noted how his players focus on basketball as soon as they enter the gym. His Hilanders — as they did Friday before, during and after their 85-31 win over Union — break huddles with a resounding cry of “TOGETHER!”

“It’s all about coming together and being as one,” McMullen said, “without any interruptions or outside influences, doing what we do as a group on the floor.”

“It’s frustrating sometimes,” said Catherine Clemens, who poured in 30 points against Union. “But we just learned to adjust and play basketball — no matter where we’re at. Yeah, we don’t really want it to happen that way. But it is what it is.”

Since the occupation began more than a month ago and the national spotlight was trained on Harney County, it appears that the Hilanders have kept the ship steady while still proving to be among the state’s best on the basketball court and on the wrestling mats. Burns High has maintained a business-as-usual approach, allowing coaches and athletes to ignore the surrounding chaos as best as possible. It has been an unthinkable task. As in: They’re not even thinking about that chaos.

“It’s just something you’ve got to put in the back of your mind,” said Tiller. “Just focus on what the main thing is: And that’s to win.”

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