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After struggling to a 3-20 record last year Crook County is excited about the team's prospects this year

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Jacob Kasberger drives sround a doubleteam from Devin Bishop and Kaleb Savage during a recent practice. The Cowboys open their season tonight when they take on the Sisters Outlaws in a 7 p.m. game.Things did not go the way that they were planned for last year's Crook County High School boys basketball team.

After going 12-13 in the 2015-2016 season and 14-12 in the 2014-2015 season, the Cowboys had expected to challenge for a league championship last year. Instead, the team fell to just 3-20 on the season and 3-7 in league play.

With much of last year's roster returning and a change in the coaching staff, head coach Darin Kessi is excited about the new year.

"The guys are working really hard and working to get better," Kessi said. "Our coaches feel like at all levels the boys are all responding really positively. I think we are getting better and we are enjoying it."

Although Kessi is still the head coach, the coaching staff has seen major changes since a year ago.

Former CCHS head coach Jeff Lowenbach has returned to the staff as the freshman coach, while Travis Hallman, who was the freshman coach a year ago, has stepped up to become the JV coach.

In addition, Jason Mumm, who was La Pine's head coach a year ago, has joined the staff to help with the varsity program.

"I think that the coaches are really excited about this year," Kessi said. "Coach Lowenbach is coming back on board and getting Coach Mumm on the staff has been awesome. He played four years of college basketball (at Eastern Oregon University), and the kids are really enjoying him. It's been really positive having him, and he's definitely going to help us get better."

The Cowboys return several players with varsity experience from a year ago. In addition, the team has seen several players step up from last year's JV team, who are working hard to get starting positions.

Chase Bales, Thaiden Mullan, Kaleb Savage and Will Combee all started at times a year ago, while Shane Kessi, Dominic Langley and Devin Bishop all saw at least a few varsity minutes a year ago.

Kessi is quick to point out that the talent level throughout the program is the best it has been in several years, and players are competing hard for playing time.

"There's not a big gap with the kids at the varsity level, so there's definitely the competition daily," he said. "I think guys are looking over their shoulders a little more than in past years because we've got a pretty deep varsity team, and the freshman team is deep as well, so it is going to force us all to get better."

The Cowboys played in a jamboree at Summit High School on Wednesday night, falling by four points to both Summit and Ridgeview.

Kessi said that the team started slowly against Ridgeview, getting in a deep hole before making a late run. Against Summit, the team played better and was in the game from the start.

Each team played two 12-minute quarters in the event, and no stats were available. Still, Kessi said that it was a good measuring stick to see where the team is at.

"Hopefully we knocked some of the rust off tonight and it will be more successful for us on Friday (when the Cowboys host Sisters)," he said. "I think the jamboree showed us that we have to come out with an aggressive mindset and mentality. It showed us that if we don't, we are not as effective. Our intensity level has been good in practice, and when we put some pressure on Summit and we brought that intensity back, it got us back in the game."

Kessi added that he believes that this might be the best team he has had as Crook County's head coach.

"They are teachable and they like to work hard, so I think that it's coming together pretty well," he said. "We have that mindset of embracing the grind, and I think there's a high expectation this year of accomplishing some things that we haven't yet. We are working for a league title, and I think guys are kind of smelling that and thinking it's possible. We have pretty high goals this year."

The Cowboys open the regular season on Friday with a 7 p.m. home game against the Sisters Outlaws.

The Outlaws should be a good test for the Cowboys as they finished with a 17-8 record a year ago, falling in the first round of the state playoffs.

Then Saturday, the Cowboys and Cowgirls combine to host the Crook County Basketball Showcase Extravaganza, which will showcase both the boys and girls grade school and middle school programs as well as a pair of alumni games and an auction to raise funds for the programs.

"We are excited for Friday and for the Crook County celebration on Saturday, showcasing our young kids, and we hope to have a lot of people come out and support basketball this weekend," Kessi said.

The basketball showcase starts with dinner at 5 p.m. and will conclude with the men's alumni game beginning at approximately 7:45 p.m.