The Lions have begun to gain traction in girls' basketball, something they haven't done in over two decades.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - St. Helens senior Nicole Harcourt looks to put the ball into play during practice on Tuesday, Nov. 26. Harcourt is one of six seniors on this year's squad, which head coach Billy McKiney says is making progress.For many teams who are looking to kick off their season on the right foot, the concern is about execution, effort or the level of talent and preparation, but for the St. Helens girls' basketball program, it's something completely different: belief.

For many years, the team struggled to gain any traction. They weren't expected to win, and so a loss didn't come as a surprise. The years in the Three-Rivers League were exceptionally tough, and the Lions simply didn't have the guns to compete with a national powerhouse like Oregon City.

Last year, some of that started to change. A layup with the clock winding down gave the Lions a 27-26 victory over Scappoose in the opener, and in mid-December, St. Helens found something they hadn't seen in a long, long time.

The Lions picked up a nine point win over North Salem. Then they defeated Rex Putnam. The next weekend, they squeaked past Jefferson, blew out Douglas and knocked off Benson for their fifth straight win.

“We beat Sherwood on a buzzer beater, and everyone went crazy about that,” said Head Coach Billy McKinney. “And then it just went flat. Boom. Everything just kinda went out the window.”

The team lost most of the rest of their games, especially due to a string if injuries, but according to McKinney, that was a turning point. Instead of expecting to lose, the girls knew they had the ability to win. He knew they had the talent and the ability to make a comeback, all they needed was the confidence.

“People (were) coming up and saying ‘that's the best they've looked since 1991. In over a decade, those girls haven't looked like that,’ so it's here. The potential is here,” said McKinney. “It's just getting these girls to buy in.”

Getting the culture to shift has been a frustrating, but rewarding challenge for McKinney, and though it will be a slow process, he believes that great progress has been made toward building a winning program, even if the progress is in baby steps.

“We've got the numbers to do it, and I think it's just (a matter of) us putting it together,” he said. “I just need to be patient.”

Illness and players busy with traveling plans have put a damper on things so far in the first two weeks of practice, but significantly higher numbers relative to last year have McKinney breathing a little easier. Last season saw just 16 girls come out for basketball, and by the end of the season, the program was down to just 13 athletes to split between the varsity and JV squads. After a successful run in the preseason, the Lions lost their momentum and stumbled through a difficult stretch of league play.

“We were like a train that just ran out of gas,” McKinney said.

This time around, he has 22 players, including five seniors returning from last year's team, and a number of young athletes, fresh to the varsity ranks. He expects to win games on defense, and to start off a little slow, but would rather have a slow start and a good finish than to end the season on the down swing.

“We came out of the gate just blazing last year. We made a name for ourselves – ‘Lady Lions get win number such-and-such,' in the papers” he said. “And then once league got here, we went ka-boom! Blam! Crash bam. Sometimes, it's not how you start, its how you finish.”

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