Valley boys basketball returns to 4A state tourney
The Class 4A state tournament felt like a distant dream two months ago for the Valley Catholic boys basketball.
A humbling two-game losing skid to Banks and Seaside sent the defending 4A runner-ups back to the drawing board, but it wasn't the x's and o's that needed fine-tuning. Valley's effort level, how hard the Valiants played for 32 full minutes, was the root of the issue. The Valiants had to learn the difference between competing full bore for four quarters as opposed to three or three-and-a-half. Effort can be explained and its importance can be emphasized, but ultimately it was the players who had to decide whether or not to raise their exertion level to state-tournament worthy.
The turnaround was almost immediate.
Head coach Joel Sobotka juggled the starting lineup and tinkered his rotation, rewarding guys who could play hardest the longest. Practice picked up in intensity. Competition for starting spots and minutes ticked as well. Valley won six of its final seven Cowapa League games including a thorough vengeful 55-42 thrashing of No. 1 Banks.
The streak stretched into the postseason too. Thanks to a strong regular season campaign the Valiants secured homecourt advantage through the first two rounds and continued to play steadfast basketball, beating Crook County in the play-in game and Cascade 57-45 in the first round of the 4A playoffs on Saturday at Valley Catholic High School.
"It's hard to explain sometimes what it is, I just knew we weren't right, we weren't playing with the energy I knew we were capable of," Sobotka said. "But I think the guys realized when you play that hard and compete that way, good things are going to happen. I really give them the credit. They weren't worried about who was starting and how many minutes they were playing or who was scoring. They were focused on what we needed to do to compete and play hard."
Sobotka said Valley's late-season change of mind began on the defensive end, where energy and effort are the requiem for success. The Valiants locked up Cascade in the first half of their playoff contest and when the Cougars caught fire in the second half, Valley kept the fight alive and was able to lock down the taller, longer Oregon West Conference contender.
"The guys understand the courage it takes to go out and compete every night," Sobotka said. "That's the most important thing. Cascade was the biggest team we've played in 4A. They started three guys who were 6'6" or above and their best scorer was about 6'3. We did a great job of limiting their second shots. Our defense was really, really solid and gave us an opportunity to get a lead."
The No. 4 Valiants take on No. 5 La Grande in the 4A quarterfinals on Thursday at 3:15 p.m. at Forest Grove High School. Sobotka said Valley needs to take care of the basketball offensively and keep the defensive effort elevated. Valley feeds off its defensive success and when it doesn't turn the ball over tends to get high percentage shots. La Grande finished the season 17-7 and 6-0 in the Greater Oregon League.
"Anybody playing at this point is a very good team that plays very hard, so we're going to have our hands full," Sobotka said. "We have to work on things for ourselves the next couple of days and get ready for them. They can play at different speeds. They start all underclassmen who have been in these battles before and they've played some good competition."
Losing six seniors off last year's squad that reached the state championship game but lost to Seaside, some might have thought Valley might take a step back this season. On the contrary, seniors Ben Robbins, Jack Grasberger and Andrew Plambeck took more of a leadership role and filled the scoring void left behind by the likes of Daniel Hardy and Joey Braun. Plambeck scored 20 points against Cascade and added four steals. Grasberger gave Valley a big boost off the bench.
Younger players such as Daniel Pruitt, Trey Eberhart, Davis Johnson, Jack Tetzloff, among others, stepped right in and helped Valley speed up the retooling process on the go.
Eight different Valiants led the team in scoring this season. Nine different players have started and seven Valley rotation guys are averaging between five and 10 points a game. The scoring variance and versatility of Valley give the Valiants a precarious edge for their state tournament opponents to prepare for.
"It's truly a team and a team identity," Sobotka said. "We have different guys who can step up each night."
No. 1 Banks and No. 2 Seaside join Valley in representing the Cowapa League on the state stage. That's three of the eight tournament teams and all three are capable of winning a state title. Banks split its season series with both Seaside and Valley during league play while the Seagulls swept the Valiants during the regular season. Valley lost to Banks at the Abby's Pizza Holiday Classic. The high-quality competition all three powers experienced can only help as the tournament kicks off on Thursday, but Sobotka said it's important Valley stays focused on one game at a time.
"I really believe we have to be prepared for the next game," Sobotka said. "Teams get better, teams change and you have to keep working."