Thursday, June 20, 2024
44.0°F

Trio of stars: Post Falls High seniors and three-year starters Alex Horning, Caden McLean and Cole Rutherford are leaving their mark on Trojan basketball history

by MARK NELKE
Sports Editor | February 4, 2021 1:30 AM

In the 2016 NCAA championship game, with the score tied in the final seconds, the guard pushed the ball up the floor, dropped the ball off to a trailing teammate just to the right of the top of the 3-point arc.

That teammate rose up and buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

National champs!

Caden McLean, then a seventh-grader, watched the game on TV and made note of that play.

"It was a dribble handoff," recalled McLean, now a senior guard at Post Falls High. "And I thought maybe that would work for us, and it did."

Last season, late in the first half of a game vs. Lewiston, the Bengals were shooting a free throw. But first, there was a timeout.

As the Trojans huddled, McLean and point guard Cole Rutherford had their own conversation.

Moments later, after Lewiston had made the free throw, Rutherford pushed the ball up the floor and dropped it off at the top of the arc for McLean, who buried a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.

"He goes, 'Just dribble it toward the middle and drop it off to me,'" recalled Rutherford, now a senior with the Trojans.

ON THE first day of school seven years ago, Alex Horning remembers standing outside the gym at Seltice Elementary in Post Falls.

A kid he knew through sports had moved away for a couple of years, but had returned to Post Falls.

"I remember there was conversation that he was going to be coming to our school," recalled Horning, now a senior forward for the Trojans. "And I remember I was outside, right in front of the gym, and all of a sudden we made eye contact."

It was Cole Rutherford.

"I don’t know why that stuck in my mind," Horning said. "I don’t remember much, but I definitely remember that."

McLean, Rutherford and Horning have played basketball together since fifth grade — first in AAU ball with the Post Falls Runnin' Rebels, then as freshmen on the junior varsity team at Post Falls High.

They are in their third season as starters on the Trojan varsity, which has been a staple at the state 5A tournament for more than a decade — 11 appearances in the past 12 seasons, including state titles in 2010 and 2015.

As sophomores, McLean, Rutherford and Horning helped Post Falls finish third at state. Last season, they were state runners-up.

This year, Post Falls (11-4, 3-1 5A Inland Empire League) is tied for first place in league, with two league games remaining, followed by what the Trojans hope is another run at a state title.

And the Trojan trio has done it so far with unique roles that contrast and complement.

Rutherford (5-foot-11) is the point guard, mostly pass first, but he can take it to the basket when he needs to.

Rutherford was an all-5A Inland Empire League selection as a sophomore (he missed half of his league games as a junior due to injury), and has 288 assists to go along with 472 career points.

This year, he's averaging 5.8 assists to 2.3 turnovers per game — a career assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.4 assists to 1.2 turnovers.

McLean (6-0) is the shooter, though he's added other parts to the game over the offseason to make him a more-complete player.

McLean was co-MVP of the league as a junior, and all-league as a sophomore. He was second-team all-Idaho in 5A last year.

He has scored 696 career points, and his 149 career 3-point baskets currently rank third all-time at Post Falls, behind Jake Pfennigs (167) and Connor Hill 156)

McLean's 63 made 3s in single season has him tied for second in school history with Hill. Pfennigs made 74 in a season.

And Horning (6-5) is an agile inside presence who can play facing the basket as well.

An all-5A IEL selection as a sophomore and junior, Horning has 853 career points, and a career field goal percentage of 50.2%.

"I think that’s the most unique thing," said Mike McLean, in his 14th season as Post Falls coach. "We’ve had strong senior players come through the program before, we’ve just never had them complement each other so well. Those three really complement each other’s strengths … together they’re a very solid group.

"Individually they’re each very good at what they do, but as a collective group, when they get things rolling, their experience playing together … especially when you talk about Cole and Caden playing in the backcourt together ... rarely do you see one of them get into a bad spot without the other one there to help them."

Other than the two years Rutherford and his family lived elsewhere, when he was in third and fourth grade, all three have lived in Post Falls their entire lives.

"On the court we definitely understand how each other plays," Rutherford said. "I understand what Alex wants to do, and I understand what Caden wants to do, and they understand the same about me."

RUTHERFORD IS a three-sport athlete, also playing football and baseball at Post Falls. He hopes to play basketball in college, perhaps at the NAIA or junior college level.

After that year at Seltice, Rutherford spent three years at Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy, where his older brother Jake attended), before enrolling at Post Falls High as a freshman.

"It was good to get back with all my friends from Post Falls," Cole said.

He said his biggest improvement from sophomore year has been "just being under control.

"If I play too fast I get out of control. Just slowing down, distributing the ball and getting better shots for people, instead of me throwing up a shot that is not necessary."

Also, becoming a better leader on the court.

"Even when guys miss, I’ve got to keep getting them the ball, because that’s what they do, and that’s what I do," Rutherford said.

Rutherford said he might want to be an athletic trainer or physical therapist when he grows up.

Cole is the third of four boys in the family.. Jake is now a sophomore on the baseball team at Gonzaga. Tyson is a junior at Post Falls, playing baseball and football. Austin, a freshman, plays basketball and football.

Cole, Jake and Tyson all played summer baseball together the past two years.

"As a sophomore, obviously he was a very good ballhandler, could break guys down off the dribble, he could get our teams into sets," Mike McLean said. "Now you’re starting to see Cole, as he matures, he’s becoming a better scorer. He is becoming a much better defender. The biggest thing we see as a coaching staff is his leadership, in practice and in games. Without question, he is our leader on the court in those tight games. He’s the one that gets us where we need to go, he’s the one that anticipates and makes the correct defensive reads."

HORNING PLAYED football as well through his sophomore year, starting at receiver as a soph at Post Falls. But he gave up football, in part, because college recruiting camps for basketball conflicted with high school football games.

His sister, Kelly, played volleyball at Coeur d'Alene High and is now a sophomore on the volleyball team at Montana.

His twin brother, Lars, is the leader of the student section at Post Falls home games, and recently committed to compete in track and field at the College of Idaho.

"If you look at us now, we kinda look alike," Alex said. "We’ve never looked alike. He’s nowhere near as tall."

"I wouldn’t even guess they’re brothers, honestly," Caden said.

"Funny story," Alex said. "I played with the Spokane Elite (AAU team) every now and then, and I went four years playing with them. All of a sudden, Lars had come to every game, come to every tournament. After 3 ½ years the other guys looked at me like, 'Is that like your best friend? Why is he at every game?' They had no idea after all that time he was my twin brother, because we didn’t look alike. They just figured he was a friend."

Alex remember "nicely" rooting against his sister when she was at Coeur d'Alene, and he was with his friends in the student section at Post Falls.

For a short time, his parents got to watch both of them play — without having to leave the gym — with the Vikings played the Trojans.

"My dad (Loren), he had one of those stadium seats, and he would put a Post Falls Trojans sticker on one side and a Coeur d’Alene Vikings sticker on the other, so he wasn’t choosing one kid over the other," Alex recalled.

On the court, Alex said his biggest growth from sophomore to senior year has been "not leaking out.

"I would just sit there and watch and let others rebound as I take off down the court, especially freshman and sophomore year," he recalled.

"He was really bad (about it) then," Rutherford said.

Horning knows he'll be a face-the-basket player in college. He had some recruiting interest from Division II and lower-level D-I schools, but some of that interest dried up because of COVID.

Some schools said they didn't have as much money for incoming freshmen, instead needing it for seniors returning for an extra year because of the coronavirus.

Horning, who wants to be a family law attorney, said he still hopes to play somewhere, be it at a four-year school, or a JUCO.

"When he came in, he was a pretty good scorer," Mike McLean said. "I think his game has evolved. I think he’s a great passer; when teams double-team or collapse on him, he does a good job passing out of that, trying to find the open shooter. Alex has been a very good rebounder his entire career … he does a really good job playing against guys that are bigger than him. He’s played some of his best games in the biggest moments."

CADEN McLEAN is the second of three McLean boys. Blake was a defensive-minded guard and a junior on the 2015 Trojan title team.

Trenton is an eighth-grader, and Mike McLean has made it common knowledge that he plans to step down as Trojans coach when Trenton's class graduates — though Cole, Caden and Alex say they're not so sure.

Caden became a shooter, he said, "because I’ve always played with Cole."

"And I always pass him the ball," Cole said with a laugh.

"And we had a good ballhandler, so I decided to shoot 3s," Caden said.

Caden can play the point when Cole is out of the game, but prefers the "2" guard.

"I think my ballhandling and being able to penetrate has gotten better," Caden said, "Because sophomore year, I was just strictly a shooter. I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t bring the ball up. Now I can do more than just shoot.

"After our junior year at state I realized I’d better start being able to dribble, because people would close out, and I would have to pass it, because I couldn’t do anything else," Caden said.

"That was definitely a big change to the game when he started driving," Horning said. "It took us all by surprise, because we had never seen that."

"After quarantine, he was always in the gym working on stuff," Rutherford said. "We're seeing it play out this year; he’s gotten to the rim so much more. Makes him way harder to guard, trust me."

Cole and Caden usually guard each other in practice.

This past summer, the McLeans enlisted the help of Connor Hill, a junior on the 2010 Post Falls title team, and later a standout at Idaho, to work with Caden to become a more well-rounded player.

"I think he helped me a lot with being able to drive," Caden said. "Because he was in a similar situation as me. His sophomore and junior year he was just a shooter, and senior year he was able to score more ways than just that."

Caden recently committed to play next year at NAIA Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. Max McCullough, who helped Post Falls win the 2015 state title, is a senior standout at Eastern Oregon. Caden has known Max his whole life, and Caden said he liked the facilities, coaches and offense at EOU.

"Caden has evolved from a pure, spot up-type shooter, to now he can score in a variety of ways," said Mike McLean, who played at Eastern Oregon in the late 1990s. "His ballhandling has really improved; his being able to run the show from the point guard position is something he couldn’t do as a sophomore. Now, if Cole is out of the game, or we want to move Cole off the ball, Caden can run the point. Caden has worked hard on his game, as far as coming off screens and shooting … he’s become a better overall scorer, a better overall offensive player, not just a shooter. As a sophomore, teams started squeezing him a little bit, and that forced him to evolve as a player."

Caden said he might want to go into coaching at the college level someday. As for now, it's been a process for him, playing for a coach who is also your dad.

"He’s harder on me than he is on other people; I think he can say more stuff to me than other people because I’m his kid," Caden said. "But it’s been for the better. It took a while to get used to it, but now I’m definitely used to it. He wants me to be the best I can be. And sophomore year I probably didn’t take it as that. It’s gotten a lot better since then."

"Coaching your own child is really good, and really hard at the same time," said Mike McLean, who played at Post Falls, graduating in 1995. "Anyone who’s been around our program knows that Caden and I have had our bumps, especially in practice. And probably from the outside it looks worse than it really is. It’s just hard; we coach all our players hard, and he sometimes hears dad’s voice, not coach’s voice."

Like all coaches who coach their kids, Mike has had to learn to balance being a coach to his kid, and a dad to his kid.

"I think that (balance) comes back to my wife, Jessica, who can run some interference," Mike said. "I coached Blake, and it was harder for Blake and I than Caden and I because I had a hard time shutting it down at home.

"I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenge."

RUTHERFORD, HORNING and McLean have accomplished quite a bit in their nearly three seasons on the Trojan varsity.

Two trophies from state, each year knocking off the presumed top team in the state, Rocky Mountain of Meridian and its college-sized players, along the way.

But both seasons, after beating Rocky in emotional games at state, Post Falls lost the next night — to Madison of Rexburg in the semifinals in 2019, then was bullied by Austin Bolt and Borah of Boise in the title game last year.

"I think that game was a learning (experience) for us, just knowing that the game before doesn’t matter; it’s all about that game the next day," Caden said.

The three have helped Post Falls to two 5A IEL titles, two Region 1 titles, and an overall record of 52-15 to date. Two years ago, there were six sophomores on that third-place team at state; all are still on the squad as seniors.

So when Post Falls suffered three straight narrow losses on consecutive days in eastern Idaho in December, it was a bit of a jolt to a team that had had so much success the past two-plus seasons.

"Everyone thought we were going to do so well this year, and once we had that first taste of losing, to Rigby, by that last-second foul, I think we shut down from there," Horning said. "I think that’s where it all started. And then once you start getting beat down every day … and then everyone’s mad at each other … I think it all started from that, from the first time we lost."

A couple of team meetings seems to have ironed things out, they said, and Post Falls has won 8 of 9 games since.

"Before we were all yelling at each other … now we have better team chemistry," Horning said.

But they still know there's plenty of work to be done. Only the regional champ advances directly to state; the runner-up must win a state play-in game.

And Lake City (12-5, 3-1), the team Post Falls is tied with atop the 5A IEL, has the tiebreaker over the Trojans for home-court advantage at regionals, should the teams finish tied in league. The teams split their two IEL meetings, with Lake City winning by 11 points, Post Falls by five.

"I’ve gone to the state tournament with them every year since I can remember," Caden said of the Trojans with his father as coach. "And I’ve always dreamed about being there, and winning a state championship.

"I think it was the first time we won state, in 2010," Caden added. "I remember sitting next to my older brother (Blake) on the bench. I remember them winning, and how cool that was."

photo

Courtesy photo As sixth-graders, Alex Horning, Caden McLean and Cole Rutherford played on a River City Running Rebels team that won an AAU tournament in Wenatchee. In the front is Tristan White; second row from left, Jalen Skalskiy (40), coach Eric Ballew, Caden McLean (11), Isaac Ballew (31), Tommy Hauser (12), Josiah Shields (1), Cole Rutherford (10), Alex Horning (24) and coach Nick Meeks. White is a senior at Post Falls High who played football in high school; Skalskiy is a senior on Lakeland High's basketball team; and the other boys are all seniors on the Post Falls High boys basketball team.