Girls basketball: Gervais young guns come ready to play
It's been nearly four months since the Gervais girls basketball team lost the third-place game in the PacWest Conference playoffs to the Jefferson Lions, costing the Cougars an opportunity to qualify for the state playoffs for a second consecutive year.
A lot has happened since then.
Five of the girls in that game have since graduated. One was unable to play in that game due to injury. Many went on to compete for the Gervais softball and track and field teams during the spring athletic season.
But they all remember the sting of falling 39-32 to the Lions, putting a premature end to a promising year in which Gervais opened the season winning 10 of 13 games and finished with the program's first winning record in five years.
"Losing that third-place game made them hungrier," Gervais head coach Kyle Buse said. "It's good that those freshmen experienced what they experienced."
The loss was a reversal of the team's surprise playoff run from the previous year in which the Cougars won back-to-back games in the league playoffs, highlighted by a buzzer-beating layup from then-freshman Isabel Vasquez to beat Scio 26-24 and send Gervais to the state playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Vasquez missed the majority of the winter season this year due to suffering a leg injury that required surgery, keeping her off the floor until March. With this year's senior class of Karina Ramos, Nancy Guillen, Alyssa Ventura, Daisy Correa and Natali Herinckx gone, that makes Vasquez one of the closest things to a savvy veteran the program has this year.
She and incoming senior Alexis Luna are the lone returning upperclassmen from last season's team, which saw big performances from the incoming freshman class. The Cougars saw five freshmen make the varsity roster last season, four of whom — Areceli Vasquez, Mary Davidson, Lilly Welburn and Katie Hanson — were a significant part of Buse's rotation and played a huge role in the team's success.
With the seniors gone, the identity of next year's Cougar team falls squarely on those freshmen. Together, they are expected to team with Isabel Vasquez to become the face of the program when Gervais drops down to the 2A Classification to join the Central Valley League for the 2018-19 school year.
The team is getting its first taste of what that team will look like during the summer basketball season in June, and the results thus far have been very positive, calling back to when the class was playing together in middle school.
"They seem very natural out there together," Buse said. "It feels like our tournament team is all back together. They understand how each other plays and how they play out there."
Even when the subs come in off the bench, they're largely sophomores, whether it's returning varsity player Isabelle Contreras or incoming first-year varsity players like Marisol Ayala.
"I think that's the one person that people forget about or didn't get to see much last season," Buse said about Contreras. "She'll back up Celi at the point guard position and be our sixth man. No matter who is going to be our first sub, she's going to be that player."
The group got to see its first live action on June 2-3 at North Marion High School, playing five games over the weekend. They'll play at two more tournaments over the next two weekends at Country Christian High School in Molalla and cap off the month with a home tournament on June 29-30.
With the majority of this year's players being around the same age and skill level, that affords Buse a certain level of flexibility when it comes to coaching the team this summer. Last year's summer team was split pretty evenly between seniors and freshmen, putting the coaching staff in the position of having to introduce the young players to the speed of varsity basketball while working them into the fold with the senior class.
"I was coaching seniors, but having to teach the freshmen," Buse said. "Now it's an opportunity to coach more and teach less."
With less focus on building chemistry — after all, these girls have been playing together long before high school — Buse can instead work on the finer details of basketball, tuning the offense and letting the Cougars take advantage of their versatility.
"We're simplifying the offense this year," Buse said. "We're going to run one type of set or one formation and need to make a read. The summer is about not a lot of fancy stuff."
That versatility is vital to the team's success. Every member of the team's rotation is virtually interchangeable. There are no bigs, there are no guards, they're just basketball players. While Areceli Vasquez will likely be the lead ball-handler, she's just one of many players on the team capable of running the offense. And on defense, there's little difference from one player to the other, allowing the Cougars the ultimate flexibility to avoid being caught out of position against opposing teams.
"That starting unit, even with going to the extent of (Contreras) too as our sixth man, they are very interchangeable," Buse said. "(Contreras) can play the point, we had (Isabel Vasquez) play it a couple times. They're all open to it."
And with Isabel Vasquez playing her first basketball since December, it's like adding an all-star to the roster. Needless to say, the optimism level for the Gervais girls basketball program is at an all-time high, and the Cougars are ready to show the 2A Classification that there's a new, formidable team ready to make an impact this winter.