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The Braves' mix of returning standouts and young talent prepare for upcoming season

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Banks' Aspen Slifka goes up for a lay-in during the Braves' playoff game last season versus North Bend.Players moved frantically around the court. Shots clanked harmlessly off the rim and Sutherlin players jumped into each other's arms, celebrating their fourth consecutive 4A state championship as the clocked ticked to zero to the chagrin of Banks players, coaches and fans who 15 minutes earlier could all but taste their first girls basketball state title.

That was last year.

This is a new one. And while last season — the most successful in Banks girls' basketball history — will partly be remembered as the one that got away, this year's team will be focused on writing its own story on the backs of those who return and the handful of fresh faces who'll be looking to make the difference.

"We have some new faces that have been waiting for their time, and some freshmen that will get a little run," said Banks head basketball coach Brandon Begley. "We're excited to plug in our new pieces and see what happens."

While the youth Begley refers to will certainly be important, ultimately the Braves' hopes this season will ride heavily on returning standouts junior Aspen Slifka and senior Sydney Gregg, who were key components to last year's success. This year, with the departure of iconic players such as Anna Klein, Karlie Gerlinger and Katie Ragsdale, the returning players will need to contribute both on and off the court, filling the leadership holes left by the vacating seniors.

"Aspen is really almost too nice a kid," Begley said with a chuckle. "We've been working with her to be a vocal leader and I've been happy with the progress we've seen. She's gaining confidence both on and off the court."

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Banks' Jessi Wren goes up for a shot during a Braves game last season.Her court skills are undeniable. As a sophomore, Slifka — along with Gregg — was an All-Cowapa League honoree last season and an all-state honorable mention selection. The 5-foot-11 point guard can score both inside and out, and with her height is a valuable asset on the boards. The junior spent the summer playing club basketball for the first time, and Begley has seen the results early in fall practice.

"The competition really helped her out," Begley said. "She didn't play much point there, so that allowed her to really grow her game."

The coach has been reinforcing to her his desire to be a more vocal leader and be more aggressive with the ball. He's seen that manifest itself in practice and is expecting good things in the upcoming year.

"She's always been good, but we've held her back a bit and she's always been very unselfish," said the coach. "I think this year she's going to play a more active role and really breakthrough."

The Braves will be aided by an experienced group of reserves, who garnered an invaluable level of experience as a result of the loss of a couple key pieces midway through last season.

"Gracie Nelson and Jessi Wren were the ones that benefitted most from the loss of a couple keys pieces late last year," said Begley. "They got to step in and play in some huge games and I think their confidence was raised by that."

In addition, senior Kim Jordan returns to the team this year and Begley expects her to be a valuable asset on both ends of the court.

"Kim is an outstanding defender and is capable of also contributing on the offensive end," said the coach. "She can make three's and can score in bunches at times."

Gregg will supply much of the inside game for Banks with the loss of Klein, who's now playing for Mt. Hood Community College. The 5-foot-10 post has been working on her game and Begley — like with Slifka — has seen the results.

"Sydney looked awesome over the summer and in workouts," Begley said. "She's naturally kind of passive like Aspen, but she become very aggressive on the court. She'll be big for us inside."

The Cowapa League, per usual, will be one of the toughest in the state, but Begley expects Seaside to be down a bit due to the loss of offensive and defensive Player of the Year Maddie Utti, while Valley Catholic, Astoria and Tillamook should present challenges.

"Seaside will likely take a step back without Maddie and Valley I always expect to be good," said the coach. "Astoria played us really tough this summer, so I expect to see them and Tillamook much improved."

Banks opens its season Nov. 30 at Molalla, and while the team will look a little different from last year's state runner-up and lacks the overall experience too immediately label state contenders, with a little seasoning this is a group with a lot of potential.

"I don't think we can replace those girls, but we have girls coming in with different skill sets that will give us a bit of a different look," said Begley. "But while the inexperience may hurt us early on, this is a good group and I'm excited for the season."

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