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St. Martin’s hits a high water mark, reaching Sweet 16 of NCAA tourney

Saint Martin’s head coach Alex Pribble high-fives guard BJ Stanley as he is substituted out in the Saints’ NCAA Division II tournament game against Cal Poly Pomona Friday, March 9, at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore.
Saint Martin’s head coach Alex Pribble high-fives guard BJ Stanley as he is substituted out in the Saints’ NCAA Division II tournament game against Cal Poly Pomona Friday, March 9, at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore. Special to the Olympian

March 16, 2019 may not become one of history’s red-letter days, but for Saint Martin’s University it was the day its athletic program reached a zenith.

The Saints baseball team swept a home doubleheader from Northwest Nazarene. Up in British Columbia, the softball team took a pair from Simon Fraser. High jumper Tyler Cronk and hammer thrower Liz Larson posted qualifying marks for the NCAA Division II track championships.

But the biggest news came from San Diego: The Saints men’s basketball team, ranked 18th in the nation, bounced back from an early deficit to get past Great Northwest Athletic Conference rival Seattle Pacific, 67-63, to reach the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. No Saints team had ever advanced farther.

“That was the best day we’ve ever had in our athletic history,” said Bob Grisham, Saint Martin’s long-time athletic director.

The Saints were eliminated in the finals of the West Regional by host Point Loma, 60-54, on Monday night, but Grisham, who coached strong Saint Martin’s teams in the early 1990s, has no problem pointing to the current group as the strongest in the institution’s history.

Fueled by a core group of transfers from NCAA Division I programs, Grisham’s 1990-91 team finished 23-9, followed by 23-13 the next season. Grisham earned NAIA District 1 coach of the year honors and Marcus Pavilion was routinely packed with 4,000 fans. Those teams have been inducted into Saint Martin’s Hall of Fame.

But the Saints never reached the NAIA National tournament while the current group has compiled a 51-14 record across two seasons, winning at least one NCAA tournament game each year.

“You’ll always get arguments, but I think the team we have now is the best team we’ve ever had here,” Grisham said.

All-Region senior guard Luke Chavez will play in the national Division II all-star game this weekend at the Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana. Jordan Kitchen, the Saints’ 6-foot-7 senior swingman, was named GNAC Defensive Player of the Year.luke

Grisham points to the Saints’ GNAC Coach of the Year, Alex Pribble, in his fourth season, as the key.

“Alex has put together the best Division II program in the Northwest,” he said. “He’s done it the right way, with kids who come in and graduate, good citizens, good representatives of the program. He’s re-energized the program. Not just on our campus but in our community.”

Pribble played at Sir Francis Drake, the same Bay Area high school that produced Chavez and former Saints star Brandon Kenilvort. He walked on at Cal, eventually earning both a scholarship and a captain’s designation under coach Ben Braun. He started his coaching career at Tamalpais High School before serving as an assistant at both San Francisco State and Eastern Washington.

“I loved the fact that he went from a walk-on at Cal to a scholarship guy to a captain. It showed a progression of working for it and earning it,” said Grisham.

Pribble might have made a career of the Tam job, but was drawn to collegiate coaching.

“My goal was to have my own program that I could run the way that I felt a college program should be run, based on values that transcend athletics,” he said. So far, he’s succeeded, with every recruit coming through Saint Martin’s during his tenure – including eight seniors this year – graduating or on target to graduate.

What surprised Pribble was the support his team gathered as the wins started to pile up.

“I wasn’t particularly familiar with Lacey or Thurston County. I didn’t know this was such a strong athletics area,” he said. “From my first day everyone’s been supportive, everyone’s told me what this place could be like if we got it rolling. That vision’s come true. We walked in the gym this year and the place was packed. The noise was great. The support was fantastic all the way through.”

Pribble and his assistants haven’t created a winning roster by recruiting players from a single source. Chavez and fellow senior Jared Matthews are community college transfers. Leading scorer EJ Boyce transferred from a Division I school, San Jose State. Key one-year senior Chandler Redix came from another DII, Kentucky Wesleyan. Four-year mainstays Kitchen and Rhett Baerlocher came directly to Saint Martin’s from high school.

“We recruit ‘OKGs’ – our kind of guys,” Pribble said. “Saint Martin’s is an intimate environment where you know everybody and everybody’s friendly. You have a relationship with your professors and the administrators. You have a brotherhood amongst your team mates and the other athletes on campus. If what you’re looking for is a bigger school with the fraternities and the sororities and the football games that’s not what you’re going to get here.”

Though he’ll lose three double-figure scorers to graduation -- Boyce (12.9), Chavez (12.9) and Redix (11.0) – Pribble doesn’t see next season as a one of rebuilding.

“The cupboard isn’t bare. (Sophomores) BJ Standley and Tavian Henderson have had huge impacts on our team the last two years. They’re all-conference caliber players,” he said.

Standley, a point guard, averaging 11.5 points per game and led the Saints with 93 assists. Henderson didn’t start a single game, but played an average of 25 minutes, contributing 7.3 points and 5.3 assists.

Pribble is also high on 6-9, 260-pound sophomore Marky Adams and guards Caden Smith (46.4 percent from 3-point range) and Alexis Angeles.

“When you’re competing with guys like Chavez and Boyce in practice every day it builds you up,” he said.

Grisham believes Pribble has built Saint Martin’s up in the present and for the future.

“Basketball here is the flagship program. When the guy running the flagship program is setting the standard with his work ethic and commitment, the other coaches get on board,” he said.

Pribble, with only large public universities in his background, has found the intimate atmosphere at Saint Martin’s to his liking, but Grisham isn’t worried about replacing him should a major school come calling.

“What Alex has done is take our basketball program to a level where it’s an attractive job,” he said. “He’s created so much interest and he’s proven we can win here.”