One thousand thirty-five days.
That’s how long the Portland Waldorf High School boys basketball program spent on the shelf.
When the final buzzer rang out on the night of Feb. 14, 2020, Wolfpack freshmen Ezra Cohen, Roman Cole and Leo Renzema packed away their uniforms at the end of the winter season. Perhaps their minds started drifting toward the spring.
Cole and Renzema would soon be playing ultimate frisbee and baseball, sports they loved considerably more than basketball. Cohen, meanwhile, was likely thinking about his own favorite pastime: watching the birds in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
For those three freshmen, basketball was secondary, an afterthought. At that point, they couldn’t have known how important those uniforms would eventually become to them.
They wouldn’t put them on again until Dec. 5, 2022.
One thousand thirty-five days.
In early 2020, Portland Waldorf experienced all too well the world’s collective descent into the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic. The small, private liberal arts school in Milwaukie was able to survive, but by the skin of its teeth. As it did for so many people and businesses, survival came with major sacrifices.
The athletic programs at PWHS were among those sacrificial lambs, and even as the acute dangers of the pandemic subsided, sports at the school were slow to thaw out of their freeze.
Due to the school’s conservative approach to athletic participation at the time, the Wolfpack did not participate in the truncated 2020-21 season. Many schools made similar decisions that year, as risk evaluators came up on the side of caution.
In a much less common twist, Portland Waldorf missed the entire 2021-22 season, too.
By the time the dust had settled at the school and the basketball team was ready to take the court, the official OSAA season was already moving on without the Wolfpack. That’s when head coach Justice Rosales decided to have his boys play in a local rec league.
That semi-official basketball experience brought about some good times for the players, but it wasn’t a real season. They barely even played, grabbing a few games here and there against a loose-knit confederation of teams with varying talent and experience before shutting down the operation again when the pandemic reared its ugly head in January 2021.
Hungry for something more substantial, Renzema admits that he considered transferring. He already plays baseball for Rex Putnam High School across town, so the transition wouldn’t have been too difficult for him.
Renzema eventually decided to stay at the school, though. There, he was joined by Cohen and Cole in antsy anticipation of when they might be able to play sports again.
Fast forward to December 2022. After over a thousand days in limbo, the Wolfpack were finally suiting up again.
Portland Waldorf, the tiny 1A high school with just 62 students, was gearing up to face Rosales’ alma mater, Washougal High School, just across the Columbia River in the second game of the season. The Panthers compete in WIAA Class 4A, Washington’s highest classification, and more than 1,000 students attend the school.
While the Wolfpack eventually lost 78-52, the team left Washougal feeling proud of how they stood up against their big-school opponents. That pride has translated into a deeper buy-in from the team, which in turn has translated into a hot streak.
After starting out 0-2, Portland Waldorf has won five of the past six games, jumping out to a 4-1 start in the Valley 10 League. As of Thursday, Jan. 12, the Wolfpack were tied with Columbia Christian in third place behind Open Door Christian Academy and Country Christian, both of which started 4-0 in league play.
“It’s just huge to see them back on the court. That’s been the most special thing for us,” Rosales said. “And then to see them do well, that’s been really cool.”
This year’s Wolfpack is led by that same trio of Ezra Cohen, Roman Cole and Leo Renzema, the only players left over from that 2019-20 team.
Each of them has grown considerably since freshman year — especially Cohen, who guessed he was about 5-foot-1 during his ninth-grade season — and each now stands 6-foot-2 or taller. They all assume a unique role within the team, too.
Renzema is the vocal leader, whose loud presence in the locker room carries over into a brash, knockaround style of basketball on the floor. He can knock down shots confidently or drive to the basket, and he happily defends the post with physicality on the other end. Renzema is also keen to raise his voice, not in anger but in emphasis, to help get his team focus and execute.
“I’m the guy who tells them, ‘Hey guys, shut up. Focus up,’” he explained.
Cohen is more of the silent-but-deadly type. Even in conversation, the birding enthusiast — who started his own environmental nonprofit called Friends of Oaks Bottom — waits patiently and picks his spots. He does the same on the basketball court, where he's dangerous as a catch-and-shoot specialist. He also plays the ‘good cop’ role with his teammates opposite of Renzema’s firmer approach.
“I’m not yelling at people like Leo,” Cohen jokes.
Cole adds more context, saying, “Ezra may not be yelling in the huddle, but people see the energy that he brings to the court every game.”
For his own part, Cole is the glue that brings it all together. He won’t lead the team in scoring most nights, by his own admission, but nobody will outhustle him or fight harder for rebounds. Cole is still learning to love basketball, but that relationship has turned a corner this season.
“I’m not the best shooter on the team,” Cole says — to quiet giggles from his fellow seniors — of his offensive game. “But I set screens, try to get these guys good shots and do my job when I have the ball.”
Cohen chimed in: “He does quiet stuff, but we need it.”
Besides the three seniors, there are plenty of other reasons the Portland Waldorf program is thriving in the 2022-23 season.
At a small liberal arts school like Portland Waldorf, athletic interest and ability can be fickle. With a student body in the double digits, building a team of 13 talented, motivated individuals is a small miracle in mathematics.
“This is a special group, this junior and senior class,” Rosales said. This group has been together for the past five years, building team chemistry on the school’s ultimate frisbee team and now carrying that over into the basketball sphere.
Among the juniors on the team are two of the other starters on the team, guard Jack Nelson and forward Emmett McNeely, as well as backup post Cedar Pepos. There’s also a freshman in the mix in Ezra Cohen’s younger brother, Reuben, who has stepped up as a defensive menace this year.
The Wolfpack can rally around a coaching staff they know and trust.
This is only Rosales’ first official season at the helm, but he has been at the school since 2018. Before that, the young, energetic leader spent time coaching and training athletes at Beaverton Hoop, and he was also skills director at the Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum Basketball Camp from 2015-17.
After taking over the basketball program last year, Rosales has preached defense from Day 1, and his players have turned into true believers. Helping Rosales reinforce that hoops gospel is longtime assistant coach Robert Cseko.
“He’s been greeting me on the front steps of the school since I was 2 years old,” Renzema recalls with a smile. “Cseko is what holds us together.”
For these boys, Cseko has always been in the assistant chair for the basketball team, regardless of who sat in the main seat next to him. They call him the heart and soul of the team.
“He’s always telling us to ‘practice with purpose,’” Cohen said of Cseko. “‘Practice with purpose’ is something we’ve actually done, and we’re all in sync about what we’re trying to do. We’re all in the moment, and that phrase is something that has stuck in my head.”
Cole added: “He is one of the big reasons I’m still playing basketball, he and Justice.”
With strong leadership from their coaches and captains, this Portland Waldorf team is truly starting to come together as a singular unit. The cliques in the locker room — the seniors, the juniors, the ultimate frisbee players, all of them — are fading away.
After a recent win at North Clackamas Christian, the team celebrated as one. According to Cole, that was the first time that had ever really happened.
“That was the first time when the whole team was in (the locker room) and all hyped after a game that we went into with so much focus,” Cole explained.
As the season goes on and the team grows closer and stronger in its self-belief, the players on the team are looking to make up for more than just the two years they lost to the pandemic. They’re also looking to erase the school’s 15-year playoff drought, all in one fell swoop.
“A lot of times you go into a season and talk about it being months in the making,” Rosales added. “For this group, it’s years in the making. It’s a super special group, for sure.”
Thanks to the perfect storm brewing at Portland Waldorf, they just might pull it off.
Lewis & Clark race heating up
Tigard’s Westside Christian and Portland’s Oregon Episcopal continue their push to catch Lewis & Clark League rival De La Salle North Catholic in the league standings and state rankings.
Despite a lopsided loss to De La Salle North Catholic on Jan. 5, Westside Christian (13-2, 3-1) remains No. 2-ranked in the OSAA state rankings, while De La Salle North Catholic (13-3, 5-0) is No. 3 and Oregon Episcopal (12-2, 3-1) sits at No. 4.
Westside defeated both Catlin Gabel and Portland Adventist Academy handily this past week, while De La Salle North Catholic wiped the floor with both Portland Adventist and Valley Catholic, and Oregon Episcopal too defeated the Valiants, along with Horizon Christian of Tualatin.
Additionally, Westside Christian’s Jonah Jones was one of 14 Oregon players nominated for the McDonald’s All-American Games scheduled for March 28, in Houston, Texas. Of the players nominated nationwide, 24 girls and 24 boys will be chosen on Jan. 24 to participate in the game.
Separation forming in CRL
The girls basketball race in the Coastal Range League is also starting to come into view after the first two weeks of league action.
Banks (15-0, 4-0) has the inside track on the CRL crown after narrowly defeating Corbett 43-41 on Jan. 6. The undefeated Braves stayed perfect in league play this past week with back-to-back wins over Neah-Kah-Nie and Rainier.
Meanwhile, Corbett (13-3, 3-1) avenged its loss to Banks by beating Rainier and Yamhill-Carlton this past week. The Cardinals won those games by a combined 65 points and remain just one game back of the Braves.
Keep an eye on Riverdale (11-4, 2-1), too, which is currently third in the Coastal Range League after beating Warrenton 49-25 on Thursday, Jan. 12. The Mavericks' only loss in the league came against Banks on Jan. 4.
Columbia Christian heating up
After taking some early season lumps, Columbia Christian boys basketball looks poised to make a run to the state tournament out of the 1A Valley 10 league.
The Knights are 5-1 in league play so far with the only loss coming to Open Door Christian Academy by six points (48-42), the team that’s ranked No. 2 in 1A.
On the girls side, Columbia Christian returned for the 2022-2023 season after not having a team a season ago. The Knights are 4-6 overall and off to a 2-2 start in league behind 6-foot-4 post Lisa Hartwich.
There’s stiff league competition ahead for the Knights, but the start to league is encouraging after taking some early lumps like the boys did.
Kennedy boys keep on pushing
Kennedy boys basketball continues to put a surprising defeat to Santiam in the rearview mirror.
The Trojans defeated Regis 81-59 on Thursday, Jan. 12, led by 18 points from senior Ethan Kleinschmit. Kennedy now sits 3-1 in the Tri-River Conference and 10-2 overall.