Country Christian draws matchup against Joseph in quarterfinal round this Wednesday at Baker High School

Country Christian's girls' basketball team has made it to the Class 1A Elite Eight once again after smacking Lowell 70-41 in the first round at home last Friday.

The match was effectively the final home game for the group of five seniors – Mollie Lewandowski, Anna Farner, Sierra Ross, Debby Grandle, and Meghan McGrath – that have all been an integral part of the program's success throughout their high school careers, and it will no doubt be a much different team after they graduate.

Until then, however, the Cougars are among the top teams in the state that are all hungrily competing for a chance at the Class 1A state title this week at Baker High School.

The Cougars have drawn Joseph for their first match of the tournament, and are looking to capitalize on the success they experienced earlier in the season when Country Christian won 45-35 at home on Dec. 29.

"When we played them at home, they led us until 2:20 to go in the fourth quarter, then we made a couple of baskets and they had to foul, and we made our free throws," head coach Russell Halverson said. "They're really good, lanky and athletic, and they've developed their press and trap concepts, which I would say is a huge concern to me, but I feel more comfortable than I did last time since we have Anna (Farner) back now."

Joseph is a mobile, pace-oriented team that can potentially lead to some difficult matchups for the Cougars, who while still very athletic, are more strength-oriented and physical.

"They are mobile and athletic from all five spots; we have good mobile athletic kids, but they're a different kind of athletic, some of [our players] are a little bit stronger, a little bit more powerful, maybe not quite as quick on their feet in some spots, and it creates some matchup challenges for us especially giving that their top six players can all shoot deep," Halverson said.

"What they ideally want to do is press, trap, create turnovers, attack in transitions, and if they don't get that, they're taking deep shots," he said. "And that's always a scary team to play in the playoffs because I can't go in there hoping that they don't shoot well, we have to go in there preparing to defend it to cause them not to shoot well; as far as matchups go, they're a tricky one for us, but there's a reason they're there in the Elite Eight."

In the Lowell game on Feb. 23, Halverson said it was mostly an opportunity for them to get some work in their rotation and gain some momentum heading into the state tournament.

"It was really a lopsided game; I was able to get all the kids in from the bench, which will pay dividends down the road and get some of the bugs out of some of the younger kids' systems," he said.

Halverson said they're rotating nicely and that he's even comfortable rotating in a couple of freshmen players if needed, which could allow him to run as much as ten deep.

"We did that in the last third of the season to be ready in case we had to later," he said. "I would say that's not going to be our primary strategy, but we'll do it if we have foul trouble or something … I want to be prepared for the unexpected."

Halverson said the teams at the state tournament this season are some of the most talented groups he's seen in years. He said he spent hours watching film on Sunday of teams on their side of the bracket, many of which they've already seen this season.

"There's just an added pressure of knowing that these kids not only play for success but they expect it; it was wonderful getting such a high seed to get here, but now we're into the flames, and I love it," Halverson said.

Moving forward, Halverson said their experience helps them in the sense that pressure in big games doesn't really affect them anymore, and they almost thrive off of it.

"They bring experience in big games and have an expectancy to win big games, so pressure doesn't give them any trouble," Halverson said. "As far as execution in the game and game prep, these kids have come to expect that us as coaches will give them the information as far as preparation, so before every team that we play, I have a full scouting report for them, and they know that and that's what they can expect."

"So with that experience and maturity, I can explain to them what the other team does, what the matchups looks like, and how we need to attack the game, and I usually give them what the three to five specific keys are that I think if we can be successful in those, we're going to win. I think better than any team that we've had, they know how to take that information and execute on the floor."

Halverson said he tends to feel more comfortable the second time they play a team since he's so diligent with his film and game prep, and the Cougars have already faced six of the seven other teams that are at the state tournament, save for the team they'll likely be facing again in the title game: Nixyaawii.

"There are two teams to me that are really really good, of course Powder Valley just because we lost to them, and then Nixyaawii who beat us last year, and they're the same batch of pieces," Halverson said. "That being said, we have the toughest draw right out of the gate, and it always works that way as the number one seed gets the best non-league champion – Joseph has been number three of four in the coaches' poll all year, and we're basically considered about the same."

The Cougars' matchup against Joseph is this Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. at Baker High School. If they win, they'll take on the winner of the Jordan Valley-Days Creek quarterfinal matchup on Friday in the semifinals.

Conner Williams
Sports Reporter/News Contributor
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