For Burns girls basketball, the seeds of this season’s success were sown a few years ago.
The Hilanders were 2A runners-up in 2015 and 2016, and the current crop of sophomores had front-row seats to all of the action.
“We would just cream opponents, and they loved it,” said Burns coach Brandon McMullen, in his sixth season with the team. “They loved the way we played. They watched that group, and when they came in, that first week that we had them, I said, ‘I think we can get there in a couple years.’”
Their time has arrived. The Hilanders returned to 3A in 2016-17, and after missing the state tournament the last two years, they once again appear ready to contend for a state championship.
And Burns is doing it with sophomores leading the way in 5-foot-10 guard Allie Hueckman (21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds) and 5-0 guard Aundraya Ceja (9.5 points, 2.8 steals). Hueckman set a school record with a 38-point game against Irrigon. Ceja made a school-record eight three-pointers in a win over Lakeview.
“Those two sophomore guards can shoot the lights out,” McMullen said.
The Hilanders, who brought back four starters from a team that finished 16-11 last season and lost in the round of 16, are 21-1 overall and 8-0 in the Eastern Oregon League. They are No. 4 in the OSAAtoday 3A coaches poll and No. 1 in the OSAA power rankings.
“We expected to see success this year,” McMullen eaid. “Where we are right now, as far as our record, we didn’t expect that at all.”
The only blemish on the Hilanders’ record is a 55-48 loss to Idaho power Melba (21-1) on Dec. 27. Burns’ resume includes a 61-46 home win over Baker on Dec. 15, the only loss this season for the Bulldogs (19-1), who are No. 4 in the OSAAtoday 4A coaches poll.
“That Baker win was a turning point for us,” McMullen said. “That Baker program is really good. They’re built very similarly to us, and that was a big test for us. When we saw the success we had against them, I think they all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, maybe we’re pretty good.’”
In the loss to Melba, Burns played without two starters in Ceja and senior forward Mileah Skunkcap.
“We just ran out of steam,” McMullen said.
Hueckman is an emerging star. She has a long wingspan, growing two inches since last season, and is an outstanding athlete, winning the 3A title in the high jump (5-6) as a freshman.
“She’s just this beanpole that can jump out of the gym, and she’s an athlete who can really shoot,” McMullen said. “She can play inside and out. Allie’s going to be a special kid. She has aspirations to play college basketball at some level.”
The jet-quick Ceja is shooting 39 percent from three-point range (35 for 89). Senior McKenzi Hoyt (4.0 assists, 2.7 steals) runs the show at point guard, senior forward Shai Skinner (7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds) has been an X-factor after missing most of last season with a broken foot, and the 5-5 Skunkcap (6.4 points, 3.6 rebounds) is a physical force.
“She plays like she’s 6-foot,” McMullen said of Skunkcap. “Nobody likes to play against Mileah Skunkcap. She’s like playing against a Coke machine that has post moves.”
The way things have come together, the Hilanders seem ready to write another chapter in the rich history of the program, which includes 3A titles in 2004, 2006 and 2009 as well as those back-to-back 2A runner-up teams.
“I always tell stories about those guys,” McMullen said of the 2A teams. “And they know those girls, see them at our home games and say hi. You want that carryover. That’s how you build a program.”