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How the Lady Buffs forged a family bond and rediscovered having fun, as told by its players and coaches.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHARITY DUBISAR/SNAP SHOTS - From left to right, the 2017-18 Madras girls basketball team consists of Jayden Davis, Alesha Freeman, Chloe Smith, Kaliyah Iverson, Monika Stacona, Annie Whipple, Vanessa Culps, Jiana Smith-Francis, Jalaney Suppah, Ellise David, Jackie Zamora and Lynden Harry.
Editor's note: Telling the story of this year's Madras girls basketball team was a methodical process. It became apparent during a conversation with Madras girls head coach Zach Lillebo that, in order to thoroughly understand it, many voices needed to be heard.

Lillebo and 10 of the Lady Buffs' players each shared a unique perspective on the team. So rather than using our words to tell a story, we turned it over to them.

The following story is told primarily from the vantage point of those players and coaches on the Lady Buffs' team, all of whom were interviewed by the Pioneer in February 2018.

Some people refer to this storytelling style as "oral history." The difference here, however, is that the team isn't done writing its history. The Lady Buffs (21-2) will play host to Valley Catholic March 2 in the first round of the 4A playoffs. With a win, they would reach the 4A state tournament for the first time since 2016.

***

Entering the 2016-17 girls basketball season, Madras was a young team with sky-high expectations. The Lady Buffs were following a season that included a Tri-Valley Conference title and trip to the 4A state tournament in which they went 0-2. They wanted to get back to state and finish higher.

PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Kaliyah Iverson and Lynden Harry (15) had plenty of experience by the time they reached junior year. They spent the prior two years playing with program standouts Mariah Stacona (10) and Janae Adams, to name a couple.Previous pillars of the program, Mariah Stacona and Janae Adams, had graduated. The team was turned over to incoming juniors Kaliyah Iverson and Lynden Harry, both of whom played as freshmen, and as sophomores, were full-time starters under Lillebo.

Zach Lillebo, Madras head coach: We went from Mariah and that group, to Janae, and then we had that blank spot. It was a little different. But on the other hand, I wasn't concerned.

You had two girls that were starters on the varsity level as sophomores, so as juniors they're going to be fine. They're veterans by now, because their freshman and sophomore years, they got playing time at the varsity level, they started and they got playoff time. And they worked on their games all summer long.

Lynden Harry, senior: That's where it started was last year. We got close; we didn't get as close as we thought we were going to, and then this year, it was like we never even left.

Kaliyah Iverson, senior: I think that was a cool thing, because we got to learn from all the previous seniors, and they gave us all their intellect. We got to pass that down to the younger group. I just thought that was cool that they (younger players) all looked up to us.

Although Harry and Iverson were practically seasoned vets by the time they reached junior year, newcomers had a steeper learning curve. Among the new additions were incoming freshman Jiana Smith-Francis, and then-junior Alesha Freeman, a transfer student from nearby Culver.

Alesha Freeman, senior: I think at first, it was very intimidating, just because basketball is so known at Madras. It was kind scary coming from a 2A school, needing to try out … I just told myself to work really hard.

I kind of made it hard on myself, but knowing a lot of the girls from COBO (Central Oregon Basketball Organization) really helped.

They were really welcoming, because they knew who I was and what kind of player I was. They kind of knew where I'd fit. So it was kind of nice. I felt really at home, not even a week into practice.

Lillebo: Out of the 36 girls in the program at the beginning of this year, 31 of them played in COBO. That started with this (current) group of seniors. They were the first group that played fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth (grade).

LYNDEN HARRY - Harry: Alesha, she just came in and I really liked her from the start, just because I've known her from COBO. I had her in some of my classes, and we did talk here and there. And then she caught on to how we joke around and are sarcastic with each other, and she was able to make jokes with us and laugh.

I think it was easy for Jiana to transition in last year, because she's my younger cousin, so she was always around me, Kaliyah and everybody else … I think everybody else adjusted to her being there very well.

The Buffs' 2016-17 campaign started strong, as they won five of their first six games. They finished TVC play in third place with a 7-3 record, good enough to earn a play-in game at Cottage Grove.

But Madras lost a 50-48 at the hands of Cottage Grove, and was unable to make it back to the state tournament.

Lillebo: By this time last year, I think a lot of us were kind of itching to see the season come to an end at some point in time. Because it's a long season.

I wasn't, on one hand, but I think we got burnt out. That's partly my fault, and that's why the fun came back into it. You can't drill and kill every night.

JIANA SMITH-FRANCIS - Jiana Smith-Francis, sophomore: It was mainly because of practice. A lot of us didn't like the running and a lot of the stuff that we did. We were kind of hoping the season was going to be over, but also hoping it wasn't.

Jalaney Suppah, junior: There wasn't a lot of drama last year, but there were certain things we couldn't get over.

Jackie Zamora, junior: We didn't really come in big headed, but I feel like we didn't have as much team bonding as we did this year.

Harry: We had a lot of trouble finding our groove and learning how to play with each other. Knowing what someone can and can't do, and whether or not they're willing to do what they can do. I feel like we struggled with the confidence piece.

Iverson: I think last year was a lot harder. We were all trying to grow — that was our growing time. Like, we still needed to figure out the rotations, everything. I think we were still figuring that out last year.

Freeman: I could see the burn out, but I could also see the fire in people's eyes for the next season. We came back twice as hard as we did last year. We wanted it.

Without a single senior on the '16-'17 team, Madras began practice in November 2017 with a near-identical roster, plus the addition of freshman Jayden Davis, whom players raved about before the season began.

Players reflected on what went wrong the previous season. Lillebo did, too.

He brought a different appraoch into the season, and brainstormed with players ways to make the season more fun, and less of a grind.

Players point to three moments earlier this season that not only encouraged having fun, but more importantly, laid the foundation for the family bond that now defines the team. First, a scavenger hunt around Madras after the first week of practice in late November; then, a retreat to Kah-Nee-Ta following the team's opening weekend tournament; and lastly, the Buffs' second annual trip to the Les Schwab Tournament in Coos Bay Dec. 14-16.

ANNIE WHIPPLE - Annie Whipple, junior: No one left. We all knew that this year was going to be the year. We were all just going to bond and all our pieces were going to fit together.

Lillebo: We didn't lose anybody last year; probably helps a little bit. We gained a couple players on this year versus last year. Jayden being one of them, and Jiana having an extra year under her belt.

Jayden Davis, freshman: I was scared as an eighth grader coming into high school, because I didn't think I'd keep close relationships with my friends. My big focus was how basketball season was going to go, and I had high hopes of making varsity. Now that I'm actually playing, I'm enjoying it.

Lillebo: High school basketball is not only about Xs and Os. For me, it's about creating memories for these kids that they can cherish for a lifetime ... They're going to remember going to Kah-Nee-Ta; they're going to remember going out on a freezing cold Saturday morning and doing a scavenger hunt around town in Madras.

They're going to remember bits and pieces throughout the season, but those are the memories they're going to cherish and hold on to and they can reminisce 20 years from now.

Ellise David, senior: The scavenger hunt actually was one of the biggest turning points. Not only seeing everyone else's driving skills, but actually getting to hear the girls open up, through all the chaos of the scavenger hunt. It was just fun seeing everyone in their relaxed state.

On the court, you don't really get to see that. You see their aggressive side, their focused side, but when you're doing a fun scavenger hunt, you get to see their real personality, their true self. It kind of just let us all jell as a team.

Whipple: That was so much fun. We were together all day; none of us wanted to leave.

JAYDEN DAVIS - Davis: The scavenger hunt was the most fun, because we'd switch cars and were with different people. That's how our bond grew more, because we were with different friends and what not.

Harry: At Kah-Nee-Ta, we were all in one room. Those rooms aren't very big, so there were like 11, 12 of us in there. It was like, we're all going to be there, we're all going to talk to each other and just have fun with each other.

We did this team bonding thing where we played "chubby bunny," where you stuff marshmallows in your mouth and you try to talk.

It's definitely easier to come out of your shell when everybody's laughing. I think that's how we got Jayden to come out of her shell … She's a freshman, very quiet, but after that, she just opened up and now she makes jokes.

Smith-Francis: When we were at Kah-Nee-Ta, we played games and everything, but after, we would just talk. That's where we built most of the chemistry, because we started to understand each other.

Lillebo: Coos Bay is always a good trip. Five hours in a bus together, go down on the coast, see a different part of the state. They got to practice in the high school I grew up in (North Bend), see where I kind of came from.

We had a white elephant exchange over at my sister's house in North Bend, and then a family dinner over at my parents' house.

Harry: When I'd said that we're going there, they're like, "Where's that? Is that in Washington?" And we're like, "No, it's in Oregon, in the corner."

Suppah: The Coos Bay trip was a really fun trip. The road trip going to Coos Bay, we played board games … Cards Against Humanity, that game is crazy, but it's funny. Lots of laughs.

KALIYAH IVERSON - Iverson: We play this hand (clap) game; it's like a categories game. And then we play Cards Against Humanity a lot.

Davis: We play Cards Against Humanity on road trips, and we laugh at the dumbest stuff, or the funniest stuff (on) what the cards say. We play this game with our hands where we clap and we just start laughing. I like that most about us.

Harry: We did a white elephant gift exchange. It was really fun. Everybody wanted something, and there was a limit, so everybody was kind of mad when you stole something and couldn't get it back.

I remember Kaliyah got a pair of loafers, literally made out of bread, and nobody wanted them, so she was stuck with them.

Chloe had to dress up as a soldier, because that's part of what her gift was from Jackie.

Lillebo: More importantly, they got to see a level of competition. I think that's key for our girls: they want the competition, and they want it each and every night.

Zamora: That's a huge tournament for us.

CHLOE SMITH - Chloe Smith, junior: I thought the Coos Bay tournament really brought us together. At first, everybody had their own little groups and would be shy. But then everybody bonded. Since then, we've all just been really close.

Madras picked up its biggest win of the young season at the tournament, a 36-17 thrasing of four-time defending state champion Sutherlin.

Coming off the high of that win, Madras suffered its first loss of the season to No. 1-ranked Marshfield. It was a learning moment for the Buffs in the best possible way.

Since then, they've lost only one game, to 5A Bend, and finished the regular season 21-2.

They haven't overreacted to wins. And, they've found a balance between having fun and working hard. Practices aren't only about drills; pregame routines go beyond thinking about basketball.WILL DENNER/MADRAS PIONEER - Madras head coach Zach Lillebo (center) brought a different mindset into the 2017-18 season, hoping to make the experience more fun and less of a grind for the girls.

Lillebo: We've had different things in practice … dance-offs, we play freeze tag, leapfrog for warm ups. Just stupid stuff that most grown adults would look at and say, "Why are we doing it?" It has everything to do with bringing the fun back into it, because that's why 90 percent of our athletes play this sport.

David: It's a new set of girls, a new set of values and principles that we go by. It's a fun chemistry. You look forward to going to practice, which is not what many people say, but you actually do.

ALESHA FREEMAN - Freeman: A lot of it happens at practice, spending two, two-and-a-half hours with these girls. And we get a lot out of it, it's not something little … I learn something new about someone almost every day.

Suppah: Before games, we usually listen to loud music and have a little dance session. That helps ... to get rid of all the seriousness, and then we go out and we're ready. I feel like that's a big part. Like, even if it's little, just a few minutes before the game.

Whipple: I'm usually the only one dancing, but it usually gets everybody really hyped up.

Iverson: Oh my god, Annie is the best dancer on the team. She just comes up with crazy stuff and she's not afraid to do anything. She's by far the best dancer. I think it's very beneficial before the games. We're not stressed … We're all getting loose and having fun.

Harry: Annie is the best dancer hands down. Kaliyah definitely comes in second place with that.

Smith-Francis: Annie is the best overall dancer on the whole entire team, I think.

Whipple: I just like to dance, I guess. I've seen them pull out some pretty good moves. They won't admit it, but I've seen it. They're good dancers too.

I'll be looking back on this and thinking about how fun it was, and how childish and goofy, how it was totally acceptable for us to act a certain way, and for us to just accept each other.

JALANEY SUPPAH - Suppah: We all love each other like we're a family, and I think that's what makes it so easy for us to bond. We don't have to see each other all the time. When it comes to basketball season, these are our girls. This is us.

Lillebo: Our kids really wanted to come back together and just be a part of one. They don't fight, but they disagree. They don't hang out 24/7 … But when we come across that big blue line to get into our court, it's time to focus, time to come together and time to play basketball. They seem to be having fun doing it.

Friday's first-round playoff game against Valley Catholic is the last hurdle Madras needs to clear in order to return to the state tournament.

Harry, Iverson, Smith, Zamora and Vanessa Culps were all part of that 2016 squad that dropped its first two games and was eliminated from the tournament. But they haven't forgotten the physical and defense-oriented style of play often seen at the state tournament.

If the Buffs are able to take care of business at home on Friday, those five players will have plenty of experience and wisdom to impart on their teammates.

JACKIE ZAMORA - Zamora: It was a huge experience. It felt like I was playing in a huge stadium.Everything's changed; you weren't back home. It just felt weird playing there. The crowds were loud. You've got to play through everything, because the refs aren't going to be the same as league and preseason. We never know how they're going to be. You've just got to play your hardest, no dumb mistakes, just put all your effort out there.

Harry: It was definitely a bigger and better atmosphere. The playing was more aggressive, the officials let a lot of contact go, and that's what we needed … to know that we could go into contact, not get a call or get a foul, and have to be able to finish through that. The defense was more intense there.

You can't be scared, you can't back down. It was tough there for me and (Kaliyah). It was totally new for me and her.

Smith: The defense is a lot harder. That really picked up our defense. We were mainly the "run and gun" type of team. Now it's our defense.

When we press, we get a bunch of points off of that. I think it's our defense that really went up since that tournament.

Lillebo: The game has changed so much at that tournament. It's a lot rougher — the refs let you play a lot more. I know our girls are tough enough to play in that kind of atmosphere, as long as we're ready for it, and as long as we're prepared.

Come that time, those seniors are going to look at us and say, "OK, this is what we got to do, and this is what we have to be prepared for. This is what happened two years ago. It's not going to change."

Harry: A few of them have been there … Chloe, Vanessa and Jackie. We need to expose Jiana, Alesha, Jayden, Jalaney, (Annie), (Ellise) to that. And hopefully we get to. That's our gameplan.

Smith: Since we made it this far, we want to go farther.

Contact Will Denner at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow him on Twitter
@MadrasSports, @WillCDenner

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