Bellingham Slam center Blake Poole never was the tallest player on the court growing up playing basketball in Eugene, Ore.
Poole was forced to learn how to use his body during AAU contests and high school games at Eugene's Sheldon High School in order to hang with players who were often taller.
Some things never change.
Now the Slam's starting center, in his second year with Bellingham's minor league basketball team, is once again embracing a role of battling players who are larger than his 6-foot-5 frame.
But what Poole lacks in ideal center-type height, he makes up for with his work, strength and tenacity in the paint.
"He's a blue collar guy," Slam coach Rob Ridnour said. "He's got a relentless work ethic. He just has a real good grasp on where the ball is going to come off the rim. He's deceptively quick and always gets into position for boards."
Poole, who earned a McDonald's All-American nomination in 2007 as a senior in high school and played four seasons at Division II Saint Martin's University from 2007-11, said he gained his work ethic from going toe-to-toe with bigger players as a youth.
"Growing up I played with a lot of older kids," Poole said. "Playing against guys who were taller than me, it was hard to get shots off. I played with a lot of tough guys growing up. I had to work hard to prove I could play with those guys."
Poole is not only proving he can play with bigger International Basketball League centers, he's showing he can dominate and own the blocks.
The 275-pound center averaged 12.5 points per game and 10.9 rebounds during his 2011 rookie season. He earned an IBL All-Star selection for his efforts.
Poole has developed into a much more complete player during his second year. He's got the stats to prove it.
Bellingham's big man ranks third on the Slam with 18.3 points per game. Poole owns a team-best mark of 13.3 rebounds per contest and hauls in 6.5 more rebounds a game than Jacob Stevenson - the Slam's second leading rebounder.
Evan Matteson is averaging 8.7 boards per game but has only played in three games this season.
Given Bellingham's lack of height - Poole is the second tallest player on the team behind the Slam's recent addition of 6-foot-8 Colin Matteson - his production has been paramount in helping the Slam obtain a league-best 14-2 record.
"I think he's gotten a lot better," Ridnour said. "He's proved he can score from different spots, shoot from mid-range, and he's even taking some 3s. He's very active in the post and makes defenders put a body on him. His passing ability has improved. It was good last year, but he can now find guys in open spots. He's just a great team player, never complains and is easy to coach."
In Bellingham's last game against Yamhill Highflyers on Saturday, June 23, Poole continued to prove he's a force in the IBL, scoring 24 points and pulling down a season-high 22 boards during a 141-101 win.
Poole said he's always taken tremendous pride in working the glass.
"I guess it's my movement after shots," said Poole, regarding to his innate ability to corral rebounds. "It helps us get extra possessions and extra shots. I enjoy taking care of that for the team. I've been getting 10 rebounds a game for a while."
Now living in Bellingham, working with the Slam allows Poole to hone his skills in preparation for the European league basketball season, which he said begins in August and lasts eight months.
Poole played for Germany-ProB league team BG Dorsten during the 2011-12 season. His 14.9 points per game average ranked second on the team, and he grabbed a team-best 12.9 rebounds per contest. He averaged the most minutes on BG Dorsten with 36.8 per game.
The IBL standout is on BG Topstar Leitershofen's roster of the Germany-ProB league for the 2012-13 season. Ridnour said Poole has the skill set to play for a better European league but added Poole would have to find a team looking for his specific abilities due to an increased emphasis teams are placing on "high flyers."
"I think (he can advance) if he finds the right situation," Ridnour said. "A lot of it is getting lucky and finding someone who will embrace his skills. A lot of teams are looking for that high flyer. That's not him. He's a blue collar guy who will be real good in the right system. I'd like to see him move up a league."
Although goal setting often runs parallel with a player who displays a hard work ethic, Poole sees little reason to put a ceiling on his basketball career.
"I can't really put a limit (on where I'm trying to get to)," Poole said. "I want to keep playing at the highest level that I can. I don't want to put limits on where I can play. (Germany) was definitely exciting. You're surrounded by this whole different culture than you're used to."
With two regular season games left in Bellingham's season before the IBL playoffs start Thursday, July 5, at Whatcom Pavilion, Poole is concentrating on helping the Slam earn a first-round bye and ultimately its first championship since 2008.
"I think we just need to bring high energy," Poole said. "We've showed we can compete with any team in the league and win."
Bellingham travels to play the Portland Chinooks at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 30, before the Slam returns home for their final regular game at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 1, at Whatcom Pavilion. Playoffs run from Thursday-Sunday, July 5-8, at Whatcom Pavilion.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.