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Crusaders finished the first half of the season with a 9-3 record, tops in Metro

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit junior Molly Grant and the Crusaders are off to a great start to the season this year.

Out of the top girls' basketball teams in the Metro League, who do you think had the best non-league record?

Prohibitive favorite Beaverton started the year 7-4. Defending league champ Southridge finished with the same mark. Mountainside, with Cameron Brink in the middle, went 7-5. Granted, all three teams took on arduous schedules. Beaverton didn't play an in-state game until after Christmas. The Mavericks migrated to Arizona for the Nike Tournament of Champions while Southridge flew to San Francisco to encounter some of Northern California's best.

The Metro team with the top non-league mark? Jesuit. The Crusaders, with five freshmen in the rotation and just four seniors, rounded out the preseason with a sterling 9-3 record. Their slate wasn't as grueling as the league's trio of state title contenders, admittedly. But for a team supposedly in restructure mode after graduating a star-studded senior class, Jesuit is proving it can be a conference fixture both this year and certainly long into the future.

"I love our progress right now," Jesuit head coach Jason Lowery said. "Our first game at Oregon City versus where we are now is like night and day. We still fought and competed and had a chance at the end, but it was our first road game for the freshmen. I was still getting to know them, and they were getting to know me. I knew it was going to be a lot of learning and we still have a long way to go. But we're growing."

Lowery said he's never coached a team with this much youth before. Due to injuries, the Crusaders are down to 11 healthy bodies on varsity and nearly half of them are freshmen. But these wet-behind-the-ears youngsters are not scrubs. Far from it. Emma Sixta is a sweet-shooting southpaw with a crafty off the dribble game and a smooth handle. Tessa Randal, Mimi Baldwin, Audrey Kent and Avery Edwards are coming along and earning more minutes.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit junior point guard Molly Block is one of the best three-point shooters in the Metro League.

Seniors Taylor Freeman, Kailynn Tuck, Kyndall Kirkland and Irena Lizier-Zmudzinski have all upped their on-court production and off the floor leadership abilities. Lowery said he wanted his senior core to be "inclusive leaders" knowing Jesuit was going to enlist so many freshmen and have to develop them on the floor. The foursome has gone above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to nurturing the youngsters.

"They've modeled what it looks like to play in our program," Lowery said. "A lot of times you see teams, where there might be a divide between the upperclassmen and lower classmen, or the upperclassmen might not be as welcoming or encouraging to the young kids. But my seniors couldn't be further from that. They've all been awesome in helping me get them ready, by encouraging them vocally."

Freeman is coming left knee ACL surgery last April but was back on the floor and going all out just seventh months later after pouring herself into the rehabilitation process. The high-flying forward can play all five positions on the court. She's an athletic attacker, a tough driver, great finisher and accurate shooter from deep, whose early unexpected return to the game gave Jesuit a big lift early on. On defense, Freeman is Jesuit's best rebounder, so Lowery likes to have her guard bigger posts where she's situated closer to the glass.

"Our best offense is when Taylor gets a rebound and just pushes it," Lowery said. "I don't care what position she plays or what position (Tuck) plays or what number is next to their name. We just want to get baskets. We have five people who can all catch and make decisions and put it on the floor and shoot it. We put out (Freeman) out there as part of our best five and go make plays."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit freshman Emma Sixta is one of five underclassmen who are playing a key role for the Crusaders this year.

Tuck is a tough, hard-charging forward who can play anywhere in the frontcourt. She runs the floor hard, crashes the glass, battles on the defensive boards and supplies offense from inside the paint.

Then there is junior point guard Molly Block, the latest in a long line of standout guards under Lowery's direction. On a good day, Block is pushing 5-foot-3. Most games she's the smallest player on the floor. But she's a lethal sniper from the outside who can snatch a defender's ankles with wicked quick crossover and a tight handle. Pressure her and she'll embarrass you. Lowery said Block is probably Jesuit's best scoring point guard since Rachel Mendelsohn. She can operate and execute pick and rolls from anywhere on the floor. Lowery will run Block off thickets of baseline screens and pin downs to get her open looks, especially from the left side of the floor which seems to her favorite spot to launch from. Against South Eugene in a 52-42 win, Block and Freeman both scored 17 points apiece.

"When you have a point who's a threat, it unlocks a lot of stuff for everybody else," Lowery said. "It's trying to put her in situations where she can be aggressive because we need her to be. She competes. No matter what happens, at the end of the day I know she's going to bring it with everything she has. She's been doing great."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit head coach Jason Lowery has the youngest team hes ever coached, but his enjoying the challenge.

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