Cowboys are excited about the future
By all accounts, it was a successful season for the Crook County High School boys basketball program.
"From the bottom to the top, I feel like our program is in a good place," said Crook County head coach Darin Kessi. "Probably the best place it's been in since I've been in Crook County. There is this expectation of winning that maybe we haven't had from top to bottom, so that's something that I'm really pleased about."
Although both Kessi and his team were disappointed with how the varsity season ended, there was still a dramatic improvement from a year ago.
The Cowboys were in the battle for a league championship up to the last week of the league season, and finished with a 7-3 league mark.
After finishing the 2016-2017 season with just three wins overall and a 3-8 league record, the Cowboys improved to 10-14 overall this year.
Possibly even more important, both the JV and freshman teams tied for first place in the Tri-Valley Conference.
"We knew coming in that our freshman group was pretty talented," Kessi said. "They were pretty dominate in most games, and I think that our JV surpassed expectations. They only lost one league game, and I think that was a pretty major accomplishment, considering that we had at least five or six boys not come out, including at least one starter off of that squad from the last year. You probably wouldn't expect that team to be able to recover enough to be able to repeat and go and do the exact same thing as a JV team as they did the year before as freshmen, so that was pretty impressive."
The JV team made major improvements as the year went on. The team lost in overtime to Gladstone in Gladstone, then defeated the Gladiators at home as the two teams tied for the league JV championship.
For the freshman team, it was an even more impressive season.
The team lost just two games all season, one to Summit in the preseason, and one to Gladstone during league.
In both cases, the freshman team ultimately avenged the losses, winning easily at home later in the year.
Like the JV squad, the Cowboys frosh finished with a 9-1 league record, tying with Gladstone for first.
Although the season started slowly for the varsity team, they came on strong at the end of the year, giving Gladstone their lone league loss of the year.
Crook County went into the final league game of the year, needing a win against the Madras White Buffalos in order to earn a home play-in game.
Madras built a big early lead and was able to withstand a furious late Cowboy rally.
Madras went on to win a home play-in game, while the Cowboys lost to fifth-ranked Valley Catholic, ending their season.
"We were definitely disappointed that we lost to Valley Catholic," Kessi said. "We felt like we didn't play our best game, but you know they are also a really good, talented basketball team. We wanted to keep playing and I feel like we had a special group this year, so that's the hard part, but I was proud of them because we came a long ways in a year."
Valley Catholic is still alive heading into the state tournament quarterfinals where they will play La Grande this coming Thursday.
Kessi credits the leadership of his seniors with much of the team's improvement from a year ago, noting that Chase Bales, Will Combee and Holt Porfily were involved in all of the spring and summer workouts and games that the team played.
"All those extra workouts — and they were getting after it — all those extra practices and extra games, they made a huge difference," Kessi said.
Bales led the Cowboys in scoring much of the season as well as directing the team's offense.
"Both Chase and Will put a lot of extra time and sweat into getting better and being committed to helping us get better," Kessi said.
Combee started early in the year, before suffering a knee injury that significantly hurt his playing time.
"It's unfortunate that Will got injured," Kessi said. "He had to take on a little different role, a diminished playing roll because of that. But he still found a way to contribute and help the team in the face of adversity."
The remaining three Cowboy seniors, Porfily, Devin Bishop and Jacob Kasberger, seldom started, and at times saw limited minutes. Still, Kessi noted that they all made significant contributions to the team's success.
"As seniors, they did a really good job of handling the challenges of having guys that are younger than them play more minutes," Kessi said. "I feel like they did a really good job of competing through that challenge and working hard. When they got their opportunities, they were ready to contribute to the team, so I feel like this senior class in one of the better ones we've had when it comes to competing the right way."
Although the seniors may be difficult to replace, Kessi is excited about the future.
"We have eight or nine players with varsity experience returning," he said. "Along with the success that the freshman and JV teams had. So I think that we have a chance to be pretty good next year. The coaches are excited about what's coming back. Certainly we will miss what we have leaving, but we are all excited about the future."
Those returning players include high scoring Thaiden Mullan, who scored 35 points in a game late in the year, as well as starters Shane Kessi, Jordan Graydon and Kaleb Savage.
Although Kessi is excited, he is also realistic.
The Cowboys move up from Class 4A to 5A next year. How big a step that is remains to be seen, but it could be challenging for the Cowboys.
Crook County is returning to the Intermountain Conference, which is something of an unknown.
With Bend, Mountain View and Summit moving up to Class 6A, the conference will have a new look.
Joining Crook County in the new conference will be traditional Central Oregon rivals Redmond and Ridgeview, who the Cowboys have been playing in preseason, along with The Dalles, Hood River Valley and Pendleton.
"Ultimately, you have to play wherever you've got to play," Kessi said. "That part is out of your hands, so you have to focus on the areas that you have to improve on."
He added that the coaching staff believes that the program can be competitive, at least at the league level, although it will be more difficult once the team gets to post-season play.
"I don't know a whole lot about our league next year, but I feel really good about competing against Redmond, Ridgeview and The Dalles. I think that our league is going to be OK. It's when you get to that next level, up at that state level, that it's going to be tougher than it is right now."
In order to get up to that next level, Kessi believes that the team is going to have to spend a lot of time in the gym. In addition, he believes that it is going to be necessary for players to get stronger.
"If you want to win at the 5A level, then we have got to get more physical," he said. "That's one of the biggest things that we are going to see is more kids like the Gladstone kids. They are big. They are physical and they are strong."