COQUILLE — Among players on Coquille’s boys basketball team, Jeremy Kistner, Ean Smith and Jace Haagen share a distinction — they are the only ones who were alive the last time the Red Devils played a game at the final site in the boys state tournament.
That was in 2003, when the Red Devils finished sixth in what was then a 16-team Class 3A tournament when Class 3A was the second largest of four classifications (now there are six classifications and Coquille is in the second smallest).
“We are overdue,” said Smith. “Me and Jeremy don’t want to just be another senior class that doesn’t get to go to the state tournament.”
The Red Devils can end that drought Saturday if they beat visiting Grant Union in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs and punch a ticket to the state tournament in Pendleton.
Coquille enters as the No. 3 seed for the playoffs, having finished second in the Sunset Conference with one of the better schedule strengths in the state. They have beaten five of the other teams in the playoffs, plus St. Mary’s, which will host a game in the Class 3A playoffs Saturday.
“This is probably one of the better draws we’ve got,” Coquille coach Willy Layton said. “They’ve got to come clear across the state.”
Grant Union is 15-7 overall and was second in the Blue Mountain Conference. The Prospectors had won 10 out of 12 games before losing to Pilot Rock in the league playoffs.
Layton said Grant Union likes to play an up-tempo game and often shoots quickly, not running a set offense.
The Prospectors have played mostly on smaller courts, though their league playoffs were held at the Pendleton Convention Center that also hosts the state tournament.
“I think we match up well with them,” Layton said.
Coquille has been led by the scoring of Kistner and Smith all season, though Haagen, Cort McKinley and Jaden Sperling all also are potent scorers capable of hitting big outside shots.
The area the Red Devils have really improved, Smith said, is the other side of the ball.
“We picked it up a lot on the defensive end,” he said.
That, combined with the potent offense, has helped the Red Devils to their 22-4 record.
Layton said the keys for the Red Devils against Grant Union will be taking care of the ball and rebounding, two things they didn’t do well when they lost in the league playoffs to Bandon on Saturday.
Smith said that loss might not be a bad thing.
“It gave us the emotional feeling that it hurts to lose a league playoff game,” he said.
Layton thinks that feeling is one thing that is a positive for Coquille, not just with the loss against Bandon, but also playoff losses each of the past two years, losses experienced by Smith, Kistner, McKinley and Haagen.
“They’ve been to this game,” he said. “They know what it feels like to lose and be done.”
To that end, they have a lot of company in Coquille alumni.
Since that 2003 state tournament appearance, the Red Devils have lost the playoff game to get to the final site 11 times, including the past nine years in a row.
Some of those setbacks have come in agonizing fashion.
There was the four-point loss to eventual champion St. Mary’s in 2016 when the Red Devils had the lead late but didn’t make free throws and the one-point loss at Valley Catholic in a game marked by questionable officiating a few years earlier. There were the three losses in four years to powerful De La Salle North Catholic, the last a three-point setback to an eventual state finalist when Coquille was in the game the entire way. There were teams bit by the injury bug, a loss to an Oregon Episcopal team that hit 3-pointers right and left, a loss at Illinois Valley when the Cougars jumped out to a huge early lead and, maybe most frustrating to Layton, a close loss at Cascade Christian in his first year as coach when the Red Devils won the Mountain Valley Conference but lost a seeding game at home to Creswell and had to go on the road for the playoffs.
“We call it the Coquille curse,” Layton said. “It’s time to end it.”