Gervais High School's move from the 3A Classification to the 2A for the 2018-19 athletic year wasn't so much as a demotion for the Cougars as it was a return to familiar stomping grounds.
From 1982 to 2006, the Gervais Cougars played against rivals such as Kennedy, Chemawa, Colton, Santiam and Western Mennonite (now Western Christian) in what would eventually become the Tri-River Conference.
When the OSAA reclassified to six classifications in 2006, the Cougars bumped up to 3A, where they have played for the past 12 years, but the school's athletic history has always been against the small schools that make up the mid-Willamette Valley.
As the Gervais boys basketball team prepares for its upcoming season, head coach Ben Schultz is looking forward to seeing the Cougars return to their roots.
"It's this blend of familiar opponents that moved with you and these old-guard Tri-River powers," Schultz said. "The newness of it all is something."
Like Gervais, the Colton Vikings and Chemawa Braves moved back to the 2A classification after playing against each other as rivals in the 3A PacWest Conference.
The Sheridan Spartans also made the move from 3A to 2A, giving the Tri-River Conference a number of new or returning teams for the coming season.
But the old guards that Schultz referred to — the Kennedy Trojans and the Western Christian Pioneers — represent the kind of high-caliber basketball that Schultz and the Cougars are looking to both emulate and challenge in their return to 2A.
"That's the kind of culture we're trying to build here," Schultz said. "I think besides those top two, it can be open. It's going to be up in the air, and I don't know who that third-, fourth- or fifth-place team will be."
Western Christian and Kennedy finished second and fourth, respectively, last spring, and look to retain their place among the elite 2A basketball powers.
But Schultz feels that with his mix of upcoming players, there's no reason why the Cougars can't shoot for a league playoff berth.
"While we're young, we have guys who have played," Schultz said. "The sophomore core is about six guys deep that will be around for a while. They buy into the system, not just with basketball, but with the other sports as well."
Sophomores Auggie Guido and Brian Limage give the Cougars a pair of lanky 6-foot-4 players in the post who have the quickness to run the floor. Schultz wants to push the pace this season, use the team's frenetic energy and athleticism to its advantage.
"We're going to be faster," Schultz said. "We're going to try to pick up the tempo. We're going to try to force teams to make mistakes."
The Gervais coach admits the tactic can be a bit of a double-edged sword, which could bite the Cougars as well if they get too out of control, but Schultz is counting on his seniors and veterans to help keep the ship on course during games.
Chief of which is starting guard Pedro Villegas, a Second Team All-Conference player who will look to guide the offense this season.
Villegas has the shooting range, skill and court vision to rank among the best players in the conference, and Schultz is counting on him to set leadership tone heading into his final season.
"He has every opportunity to be a leader on the court and off the court, and he's taken that to heart," Schultz said.
Not that Villegas will be alone. He'll be joined in the backcourt by sophomore guard Damian Tavara, who is coming off a strong season leading the Gervais football team, and junior Xaden Ramon.
The Cougars also feature seniors Armando Tarula, Alejandro Contreras and senior newcomers Apolinary Mararoff and Davis Morales, the latter of which is coming off his final season as team captain with the boys soccer team.
Along with freshman Magic Gutierrez, junior Manuel Cardenez and sophomores Michael Toran and Tyler Studer, the Gervais boys basketball team is ready to kick off the season.
The Cougars open with a trip to Vernonia High School this weekend for tournament play and host Scio on Dec. 5 for their home opener. From there, it gets right into league play against Chemawa on Dec. 11.
"I think we have a good chance to make top five in this conference, but we have to come prepared every night," Schultz said.