TESC aims to make most of its reprieve

OLYMPIA - Three years ago, Jeff Drinkwine took over a struggling Evergreen men's basketball team that had one winning season in its 10-year existence.

Yet he came in with the expectation of turning a loser into a winner.

“We wanted to make this one of the best small college programs in the Northwest,” Drinkwine said.

The Evergreen State College (19-10) took another step in that direction when it earned an at-large bid this week to the NAIA Division II national tournament next week in Point Lookout, Mo.

A week ago, No. 24-ranked Evergreen lost its opening-round game in the Cascade Conference tournament, losing at home to Northwest for the second time this season. Evergreen’s season seemingly was over – until the Geoducks received their bid Wednesday.

“I’m not surprised, because those are our goals and expectations,” Drinkwine said. “I wanted our seniors (to have) an opportunity to go to nationals.”

Nate Menefee, a two-time All-America guard, and Julio Feliciano, an honorable mention all-conference center, have sparked the team all season and are going to nationals for the second straight season.

Before Drinkwine’s arrival, the Geoducks’ only trip to nationals came in 2002. They just missed going in Drinkwine’s first season, when they finished 21-8.

“I’m excited for this team. They went out and they earned it,” Drinkwine said.

Evergreen, which enters the tournament unseeded, will play No. 8-seed Embry-Riddle of Florida at 10 a.m. (PST) on Wednesday.

Drinkwine saw Embry-Riddle play in December, when the Geoducks and Eagles lost to NAIA Division I power Azusa Pacific on back-to-back days.

“It’s like we’re playing a mirror image of ourselves,” Drinkwine said. “They’re very quick and athletic.”

After Evergreen tied for third in the Cascade Conference, it seemed its only chance to reach nationals for the third time in school history was to win the conference tournament. But four Cascade teams were invited.

In addition to Evergreen, Oregon Tech, Eastern Oregon and Warner Pacific are all headed to Missouri.

With 19 wins, Evergreen still has a shot at its third straight 20-win season. In the 13 years of the program, Evergreen has had four winning seasons – three of them under Drinkwine.

This season’s team, led by Menefee’s 26.5 points per game, is getting another chance. And Drinkwine wants to make sure his team doesn’t waste it.

“We need everyone to step up,” Drinkwine said.

Gail Wood: 360-754-5443