“What an impossible season it was” — a recollection of Mick Gillette.
The 1958-59 McLoughlin Pioneers didn’t start with state-championship quality. The Pioneers were just 7-7 in their first 14 games, with losses coming to the much-larger schools of Pendleton and Hermiston.
Mac-Hi, as it’s known colloquially, played under Russ DeBondt, a former fighter pilot during the Korean War. DeBondt cast an air of respect and credibility over the program still remembered by the players.
“He had this gentleman-type exterior,” said John Johnson, a guard on the team. “He’s not ever yelling at the players. As a young man at the time, that's how I saw him. Very polite and always had a lot of respect for him. High-quality man. Lot of integrity. Lot of integrity. In some ways he wasn’t a whole lot older than we were.”
He was in his 30s, but carried himself with such the “gentleman-type” exterior, everyone respected him. As his players aged, they continued to learn from him and about him. Eventually, he wound up in California and was a pioneer in physical education there, predominately focusing on motivation.
DeBondt created a team-first mentality that both Johnson and Mick Gillette carried with them. Gillette became a Justice on the Oregon Supreme Court, and Johnson carved out a successful business career.
When remembering how the team came together, how it was so unlikely playoff basketball appeared to be midway through the season, the galvanization of the team ultimately sticks with the two.
“It’s easy to overstate this because I learned it in all the athletics I participated in, that experience showed me how far genuine teamwork can take you, how much you can accomplish if it's not totally about you,” Gillette said.
“What’s really stuck with me is when you’re unselfish and play with a team — and I use a lot of that in my business career,” Johnson said. “Just how much of a good team, we just got better and better and better. We were just at the top of our game.”
Similar to DeBondt’s disposition, Mac-Hi ran a methodical, slow-paced, careful offense. Kenn Hess, The World’s sports editor at the time, described the Pioneers as “poised and polished” after the tournament.
But it didn’t start that way. It wasn’t necessarily that DeBondt’s set-based system was unfamiliar, but it just took time for everyone to fall into their roles.
“Once we had it straight, we were pretty good,” said Gillette, a forward on the team.
The slow start was evidence of that. Mac-Hi didn’t score 60 points until a 66-39 win over Nyssa in its eighth game.
McLoughlin didn’t have a star, so said Gillette and Johnson. But the Pioneers had a solid collection of players. After starting 7-7, Mac-Hi finished the regular season 9-2, beating both Hermiston and Pendleton in that stretch, and later earned a berth to the tournament on the South Coast.
Pat Gillette and center Gary Bogle were both named to the all-state team, but it was the collection that powered the team. With a versatile roster and complete knowledge of DeBondt’s system, Mac-Hi excelled at finding the hot guy.
“True good teams is when one guy is having a bad day, another guy steps up. We had that in spades,” Johnson said.
“It seemed like we could put our entire league in the building.”
There’s a scene in the famous basketball movie "Hoosiers," where Gene Hackman takes his small Hickory squad to the seemingly massive gym at the famed Hinkle Fieldhouse and measures the basket at 10 feet high and the free throw line at 15 feet from the hoop, demonstrating it’s the same-sized court as they’ve always played on, diminishing the moment in his players’ heads to the point of a regular game.
DeBondt did the same with his players. The entirety of the trip required it.
“It was very deliberate in his prep for us,” Johnson said. “He prepped us very well.”
McLoughlin High School is located in Milton-Freewater, a community just south of the sprawling Washington wine country.
Many of its inhabitants hadn’t ventured far from the desert community, staying instead to farm with their families. The trip to the opposite corner of the state was a wondrous one.
Upon arrival, the first thing DeBondt did was take his team to see the Pacific Ocean, the vast water stretching out not unlike the desert.
“He tried to make it an experience,” Johnson said.
Imagine, too, being from a small school, with a “band-box” of a gym, and walking into the Pirate Palace for the first time.
The upper deck looming above, the seating behind the basket watching through the backboards, the sheer size of it compared to what the Pioneers were used to.
At the time, none of the gyms in northeast Oregon could compare to Marshfield’s.
“It was just — we were kind of in awe,” Johnson said. “Some of them (back home) had two or three rows off the deck. That’s all they had. We felt like we walked into the biggest stadium in the world. And for us it was. But the stadium itself — I can’t focus too much on it. I can remember the floor, and remember how big of a stadium it felt like.”
Opened in 1952, Pirate Palace was built with excellent acoustics.
“Somehow wood just resonates,” Gillette said. “You get the most wonderful sound in a place like that.”
“We felt like we were the underdogs. Every game we played in the playoffs. ‘How can we beat these guys? You know?”
At the tournament, Mac-Hi wondered if it belonged. The Pioneers were thought to be the upstart in the lower division against the likes of Newport and Coquille. Newport was big and imposing and Coquille, the obvious local favorite, had a standout guard in Jim Jarvis.
Mac-Hi ran up against the Red Devils in a game Johnson and Gillette both remember. Gillette called Jarvis the best player he’d ever seen and said he could do things with a basketball then that nobody could do, noting that those moves are commonplace now.
Gillette remembered how full Marshfield’s gym was that night for the semifinal against Coquille.
“I think you could’ve gone into Coquille that night and steal the town and no one would’ve noticed,” he said.
Mac-Hi pestered Jarvis all night with double teams and earned a chance to play for the A-2 Championship with a 66-51 win.
In some ways, the final against Newport felt somewhat like a formality for the Pioneers. Everyone had pegged Jarvis as vastly the best player in the tournament, and, by proxy, made Coquille the presumptive favorite playing essentially home games.
But there weren’t any delusions. They still had to play Newport, and knew the Cubs were good from watching them in their tournament games.
The Cubs had a plan.
They would focus on their attention on Mac-Hi’s all-state bigs: Pat Gillette and Bogle. Cue DeBondt’s offense and Mac-Hi’s unselfishness. Gary Hiatt, in his highest scoring output of the season, scored 29 points on 11-of-21 shooting and was 7-of-9 from the free throw line as the Cubs concentrated on the two all-stars.
McLoughlin won 72-60.
“(Our teamwork) was really evident in the final game when Gary Hiatt shot the bottom of the net out because they were focusing so hard on Pat and Gary,” Johnson said.
“We scattered to the four winds.”
After graduating high school, the Pioneers each went their ways. McLoughlin High School honored the team last year with induction into the school's Hall of Fame, and five of the players attended. Four had previously died, not including DeBondt and the team manager.
The night gave the team both a chance to reunite, but also revel in their accomplishment. Humble by default, perhaps a lasting influence from DeBondt, Johnson and Gillette never boasted about the feat.
“I don’t know how you say that without being arrogant, but we're prideful about that,” Johnson said.
That pride manifests itself in interesting ways. Some years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court heard cases at various sites around the state. One of those sites was Pirate Palace, so Gillette heard cases sitting on a stage on the floor on which he helped win a state championship.
Later in life, as a basketball official, Gillette worked a state championship game and something remarkable happened.
Standing there at midcourt, surrounded by the fanfare and the excitement and the tension, he remembered the moment from his senior year of high school. The whole thing flashed in front of him.
“I remembered exactly what the officials told me and I told the players the exact same thing,” he said. “It stays with you.”