Caleb Mowry remembers very well the point in time when he realized he could compete at the varsity level.
"It was right at the beginning of the year last year, after I made the all-tournament team at our own [Thanksgiving] tournament," Oregon's 6-foot-5 senior center said. "I had a couple of good games and thought, 'You know what? I can do this.' After that, it was just building confidence through the season."
Mowry's classmate, Alex Cain, remembers when he first realized Mowry could be a dominant force in the paint.
"You could tell watching him dominating sophomore games that you could expect him to get the same result on varsity if he kept working hard," said Cain, a 4-year varsity starter. "You could really see the transition in his attitude as he got into high school and started growing."
That transition has continued throughout the last 2 years. The kid coach Quinn Virgil just couldn't find a way to slip into a strong varsity rotation as a sophomore at the end of the 2010-11 season has become the main focus of opposing defenses, as the guy through whom the Hawks run their offense.
Mowry burst onto the local basketball scene last season, when he averaged 13.1 points and 8 rebounds per game. He's continued to open eyes this year, averaging 19.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for the 12-13 Hawks.
"He was a kid we always thought could do this," Virgil said. "Early last year, we wondered, 'Should we have played him more as a sophomore?' He had some pretty good games, then he'd struggle once in a while. But he slimmed down over the summer, worked real hard on his post moves and jump shot, really made a commitment to basketball ... and it's really paid off."
Ask anyone around the Oregon program – Mowry included – what the biggest jump is he's made, and they'll all tell you the same thing: his mental game.
In Mowry's junior year, Virgil would often notice that his struggles ensued when something wouldn't go his way, be it a bad foul or rough start. If Mowry picked up two early fouls, Virgil was left thinking, "Oh boy, he might be in trouble tonight."
But as he's matured, he's also grown on the court. This year, there has been far more consistency, as Mowry refuses to let such things bother him anymore.
"I'd have good games, then off games," Mowry said, "and I realized that I had to take more control of that. This year, I've played more relaxed, really focused on letting the game come to me. I'm just trying to do what I need to do to help the team on any given night, and not worry about anything else."
His teammates love that attitude, basically because it frees them up to do their own thing. While the offense runs through Mowry, the rest of the Hawks know that when the defense turns its attention toward the big man in the middle, things are going to open up for the rest of them.
"He works hard to get into a good position to score, and he knows we'll reward him with a good pass," Cain said. "On the other hand, he takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the rest of us. Once he starts to score and get in rhythm, teams have to send multiple defenders at him, and that's when it's our turn to step up and do our part to help the team win."
Virgil likes Mowry's ability to, as he says, "dictate the game physically and mentally." Both he and Cain point to the center's work ethic and commitment to getting better and making his teammates better as the main reasons why the Hawks put so much trust and faith in Mowry.
Even when he's not the center of attention for the Hawks, Mowry's mere presence makes a huge difference. Take Tuesday night, for example, when Oregon and arch rival Byron were tied at 49 with 4-tenths of a second to play.
With Oregon inbounding the ball from under the basket, all of the Tigers' eyes were on Mowry. Instead, Ian Holley lofted a perfect lob pass to Cain, who was racing toward the rim. Cain took off and tipped the ball into the basket for the game-winner.
"We designed it that way, because we knew Byron would be expecting Caleb," Cain explained. "It couldn't have been a more perfect pass from Ian, and I happened to get pretty lucky that it went in, but I don't think Byron was expecting it at all."
While the Hawks haven't had the type of season they wanted – they're 2-10 in the buzzsaw that is the Big Northern West Conference – Mowry and his mates have a lot of confidence heading into the postseason. Playing top-tier teams like Rockford Lutheran, Winnebago and Rock Falls down to the wire the past few weeks, Oregon's players realize they have what it takes to square off against any team that comes their way in the postseason.
"This conference is stacked, and you better come ready to play your best every night or you're in trouble," Mowry said. "That tough competition every night, it gives us confidence that we can hang in there against anybody."
Oregon opens its own Class 2A regional with a semifinal rematch with Byron at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Mowry, who is looking at some in-state Division III schools to continue his basketball career, plans to go pre-med and major in biology. For now, though, he's going to enjoy the end of his high school playing career as much as possible.
"As a sophomore, I remember looking up to guys like Sam Ford and thinking it was a little scary how fast and strong and good they were," Mowry said. "Now, other younger kids are looking up to me and want to play like me and be a big guy like me, and it's a good feeling ... it's crazy to think about, but still fun."
2012 stats: 13.1 points, 8.0 rebounds per game
2013 stats: 19.9 points, 8.5 rebounds per game
FYI: Led the Hawks sophomore team in scoring as a freshman & sophomore. ... Oregon's leading varsity scorer the past two seasons. ... Plans to play basketball at an in-state Division III college & major in biology with a pre-med focus.