Trinity Lutheran's Matt Eidler scored 45 points against Hosanna Christian. (Photo by Irish Milandin)
Trinity Lutheran's Matt Eidler scored 45 points against Hosanna Christian. (Photo by Irish Milandin)

Trinity Lutheran’s first attempts to get its boys basketball program off the ground were shaky, to put it mildly.

The 1A Saints of Bend debuted with a 1-22 record in 2012-13, and when they regrouped and took another run at varsity competition three years later, they went 0-21.

But all of that is quickly fading into the rearview mirror as Trinity Lutheran has made a mad dash into relevance. In their third season under coach Kyle Gilbert, the Saints (18-4, 12-2 Mountain Valley League) are No. 5 in the OSAAtoday 1A coaches poll and are believing they have a shot in the state playoffs.

“If you put our team against any other team, I think we can compete with any level,” Gilbert said. “When we’re playing our game and we’re all five working on the same cylinders, we’re pretty tough to beat. We definitely want the championship at the end.”

Gilbert, who played at South Medford (1995 graduate), was coaching eighth-grade basketball and football at Salem Lutheran in Orange County, Calif., before relocating to Bend in 2015. He coached the eighth-grade team at Trinity Lutheran, a promising group led by wing Matt Eidler, guard Cash Niemeyer and post Abe Clift.

“They weren’t too sure if they were going to stay for high school because they’re obviously very capable basketball players and wanted to play against the bigger schools,” Gilbert said. “But we just developed a good relationship. I coached them, and they decided to stay.”

Gilbert took over as the varsity coach the following season. The Saints improved from winless to 16-9 in 2016-17, falling in the league playoffs, and went 19-9 last season, losing in the first round of the state playoffs.

Trinity Lutheran has made a leap forward this season as Eidler (19.5 points per game), Niemeyer (8.6 points) and Clift (8.5 points) – now juniors -- have been joined by 6-foot-1, 240-pound freshman guard Scooty Gilbert (13.5 points), the coach’s son.

The Saints are battling for Mountain Valley supremacy with No. 4 Triad (17-2, 11-2), a semifinalist last year. After losing at Triad 54-42 on Dec. 22, Trinity Lutheran got payback with a 35-31 home win Jan. 26.

“That was our biggest win,” Kyle Gilbert said. “It was almost like a mental hurdle because Triad has obviously been very good for very long. It was definitely a great accomplishment by the boys.”

The Saints learned a hard lesson the following week, however, when they visited Paisley, a team they defeated by 50 points at home Jan. 4. They came out sluggish, got in foul trouble, never adjusted to the smaller court and suffered a humbling 45-41 loss to the Broncos. It made for a somber 2 ½-hour drive home.

“I had like six players in my car, and I think the only words that were mentioned in the 2 ½ hours were ‘God bless you’ when somebody sneezed,” Kyle Gilbert said.

Behind a 45-point explosion from Eidler, Trinity Lutheran bounced back the next day with a 70-60 win over Hosanna Christian, a team that had defeated Triad a few days earlier.

The 6-5 Eidler is having a banner season. He not only leads the team in scoring, but also in rebounds (8.5), assists (3.8), steals (3.6 steals) and blocks (1.1).

“There’s no limit to his game,” Kyle Gilbert said. “He can hit the three, he can work inside. The first couple years, he kind of liked to hang out more and hit the 15- to 20-footer, and once in a while mix it up inside. But this year he’s definitely added more driving to his game.”

Regardless of how things pan out for the Saints this season, they have raised their profile. And with a strong middle school program that holds its own against 6A competition, they expect to build on the momentum.

“We’ve got people coming up with talent,” Kyle Gilbert said. “The kids are loving it. We’re definitely looking for a bright future.”