By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Some days, Matt Espinoza is still trying to figure out just how the McNary High School varsity basketball team went on a 23-4 tear through the ranks of the OSAA in his senior year, 2002-03..
“We started the season 1-2, we weren’t the most athletic team, we had a couple of tall guys but nothing over 6-foot-4. We had just enough talent to do something special, but it was mostly because everybody bought into what we were doing,” he said.
The team’s something special included tying for the longest winning streak of the year, 16 games, and finishing the season with the best overall record in the state.
Espinoza graduated from McNary and headed to Southern Oregon University where he set a couple of school records. Most notably, the highest ever three-point percentage for the season.
After finishing his degree, he returned to McNary as an assistant coach, and later served as head coach for, the Celtics. He resigned when teaching positions failed to open up.
Since then, he’s found work as a trainer at Beaverton’s Shoot 360 and continues to coach in the Central Valley Conference as an assistant in the varsity program at McKay High School.
“Getting involved in the community around McKay really opened up my eyes,” Espinoza said. “I had lived in this area before moving to Keizer, but there are things you don’t notice as a kid, like the number of families that just can’t afford athletic programs for their kids. The money is a hurdle, and a place like The Hoop can be a long drive for these families.”
Espinoza knows first-hand the advantages of starting early. When he was a kid, his mother would bend wire hangers into the shape of basketball hoops and hang them from the doorknobs around the house.
Last spring, he began offering free clinics for kindergarten and elementary school-aged kids at the McKay gym in the early evenings. This spring, he started offering similar trainings for middle schoolers. He dubbed it the Salem Hoops Project and the clinics draw anywhere from 20 to 30 budding athletes each week. More than 150 have passed through the doors in just over a year.
“Most of it is geared toward fundamentals. We’d do more shooting if we could get the baskets lower,” Espinoza said.
“Coach Noza” is a natural with his young charges. He greets as many of them as he can at the door, and usually by name.
“It’s all part of building up the community here,” he said. “We have current players and a few alums who come back and help out with the clinics every week.”
He still takes cues from his former coaches at McNary when working with his kids in the clinic. Because the one thing he does know about that fateful season more than a decade ago is that it came not from star players, but above average players who respected the process.
“With a lot of coaches I see, the emphasis is on the end result, and not the process. More important than making a certain number of baskets is are you doing it the correct way, is your footwork right or are you trying to just rush your way to a result?” he said.
Perhaps more importantly, he’s figured out that the approach is something that can be taught.
“The thing that made that team great was we were taught discipline and accountability by Larry Gahr and Jim Litchfield. We all had jobs to do and some of us came off the bench to do only that job, but it worked and something special happened as a result,” Espinoza said.
While the academic year is winding up, any student in the Salem area is invited to the Salem Hoops Project clinics. For more information, contact Espinoza at www.coachnoza.com He’ll add your name to an e-mail list to announce when the clinics resume this fall.