YAKIMA, Wash. -- You knew this would happen. That is, you knew this would happen if you knew Brandon Rinta.

Most will recall Rinta, who was one of the most remarkable basketball players to perform at either Yakima Valley or Central Washington, and who more recently made news as a Northwest Nazarene assistant coach who had the proverbial rug pulled from under him.

Told he’d replace the retiring Tim Hills after the 2010-11 season, Rinta found himself adrift when Nazarene administrators had an apparent change of heart, or brain, or something.

A season and a half later, Rinta has not only landed on his feet, he is coaching the third-ranked NAIA team in the country, the 18-1 Lewis-Clark State Warriors.

It’s true that good competitors don’t always become good coaches, and competitors don’t come much better than Rinta. Just ask Dean Nicholson, who on YVCC’s sophomore night in 1998 said he’d never coached a better one.

For someone enshrined in multiple halls of fame, and who won 609 games at CWU, that’s saying something.

“I have a photo of him in my office, and I’m looking at it right now,” Rinta said in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve not forgotten that compliment, and I never will.”

Nor will fans in and around Lewiston, Idaho likely forget this season, one in which the Warriors have achieved the highest national ranking in program history.

While Rinta’s head coaching career is in its formative stages, as is his team’s season, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the Chehalis native has carried his overpowering will to win — to play, even — from the hardwood to the chalkboard.

Remember that Rinta, as a Chehalis high school standout for coach Dennis Bower, incurred an unusual ailment in his shooting (right) elbow that neither treatment nor multiple surgeries would fix.

But instead of calling it a career and directing his competitive interests elsewhere, Rinta taught himself to shoot left-handed. And he became good enough at it, while playing for Nicholson and Leon Rice at YVCC, to carry his career to the NCAA Division II level at Central, where he continued to thrive as a guard.

Though never a pure shooter, Rinta played hard and he played smart — exceptionally so. And apparently he’s coaching that way now.

You know, one game at a time.

“Long ago,” he said, “I stopped looking at the schedule and thinking, OK, win, loss, win, win, loss. But nobody expects to reel off their first 18.”

As the Warriors’ first loss, an 89-80 setback Saturday night at Rocky Mountain College, didn’t dislodge them from their lofty ranking, neither will it deter Rinta from his goal of taking L-C State to the NAIA national tournament for the first time since 2008.

But of course Rinta the coach remains much like Rinta the player, one who embraces the journey with respect to the destination.

He speaks of a “special” group of players — four seniors, six juniors, one sophomore and four freshmen — who have galvanized in spectacular fashion.

“I really didn’t know what to expect coming into this year,” Rinta says. “We had quite a bit of turnover from last year (his first L-C team went 16-13). We have three bigs that are seniors, we have three forwards that have another year under their belts and two redshirt freshmen who didn’t even play last year. We added four JC (junior college) guards to the mix.

“And everyone on the team, to a man, has been a little bit better than I thought they would be.”

L-C’s top scorer is P.J. Bolte (pronounced Bolt-ee), a 6-foot-6 senior from Tacoma and Highline CC, who comes off the bench and averages 16.5 points a game. Junior guard Jacob Champoux is at 13.1 ppg, and five other Warriors are averaging 7.4 or more.

Their collective statistical strengths are shooting and defense (.525 field goal percentage compared with .403 for opponents) and rebounding (40.7 per game to 28.8 for opponents). And of course L-C shares the ball, having dealt 127 more assists than its foes.

Still, as Rinta readily acknowledges, it’s early. And many potential pitfalls remain in the far-flung, nine-team Frontier Conference in which Lewis-Clark State competes.

“We’ve just gotten into our league schedule (five games), and it’s very balanced and very competitive,” Rinta says.

Nor has he lost track of the bigger picture, the quality-of-life aspects for which Rinta is unspeakably grateful. And that includes being passed over at Northwest Nazarene.

“If anything,” he said, “it makes me thankful for what happened. I feel very blessed to be here at Lewis-Clark State, and it’s clear to me almost two years later why that happened. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Especially since Rinta is there with his wife, Deanna, 2-year-old daughter Kendall and 6-month-old son Shea.

“When I was an 18-year-old kid in Chehalis, I had no idea how my decision to go to Yakima would shape my career and my life,” he says. “To get to play for coach Nicholson and coach (Leon) Rice (who is 13-2 at Boise State), then to go on to Central and play for coach (Greg) Sparling and become part of the Central coaching family.

“And now to be here, in this situation with this school and this team, and to have my family. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Nor, no doubt, would basketball fans of Lewis-Clark State.

• Roger Underwood can be reached at 509-577-7694 or at runderwood@yakimaherald.com.