Crook County wins more games than the past two seasons combined, still have lots of room to get better

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Emma Ackley goes to the hoop for a fast break layup during the Cowgirls' home victory over the Corbett Cardinals. The game was one of five wins on the season for Crook County. Crook County High School head girls basketball coach Heidi Lea knew that it was going to be a slow process when she took over as head coach a year ago.

The program had fallen on hard times, winning just two games and going 0-10 in conference play the year before.

Perhaps more importantly, there were few girls in the program with significant basketball experience.

Last year, the team still struggled, winning just two games while going 1-9 in the Tri-Valley Conference.

This year, the team has seen marked improvement. Although still a losing record, the Cowgirls improved to 5-19 on the year.

"We had more wins this year than we had the past two years combined," Lea said. "So that was a success."

Lea added that the team has a lot of young players returning that have now had a taste of winning.

In addition, both the sixth- and eighth-grade teams are now competing in tournaments at the state level, gaining valuable experience.

"I think that we are getting there," Lea said. "We have some younger kids coming in that have been on the court and have been playing and practicing over vacations and over Christmas, so they are coming in knowing that basketball is a long season and it's a commitment. I think that the older kids are seeing what we can be, and the younger ones are coming in with an expectation that we can be in games, and I think that the atmosphere is changing."

Lea credits this year's seniors with starting that change.

"Sarah Connolly was one of our team captains," Lea said. "She was really goal oriented and set some goals that she wanted to see us achieve through the year and a lot of those we hit."

Lea added that along with Connolly the remaining seniors, Emma Ackley, Odessa Tramel-Green, Cassidy Dill and Allee Simmons all contributed to the team's overall success.

"They all just kept a good positive attitude," she said. "There were some close games and games that would have changed team spirits around. It takes the kids to say 'OK, let's look for the positives.' The coaches, that's our job, but it helps when you have kids who say 'come on, we're OK. We are in these games and we're not doing bad.'"

In addition to having a positive attitude, Lea credits the seniors with leading by example. All five seniors are good students, and all have worked with younger players to help make the team stronger.

Lea noted that some of the players have spent time working with middle school players as well.

Post players Ackley and Tramel-Green, who did not play varsity until this season, had a significant impact on the floor, while Connolly was the team's floor leader.

Although the seniors will be missed, Lea is still excited about the future.

This year's freshman class was good enough that four of them saw significant varsity action.

Those four, Liz Barker, Kennedy Buckner, Teagan Freeman and Dallas Hutchins, are joined by returners McKinzee Mode, Grace Kasberger, Alayna Denney and Heather Ptomey, who all have varsity experience. In addition, Tansy Clack, who was unable to play this year due to an injury, is expected to return. Lea also expects some members of this year's JV team to be able to step up and help the varsity program.

In addition, Lea noted that due to injuries most of the players on both the freshman and JV teams were playing five quarters of basketball each night.

Players would play in all four quarters of freshman ball and then step in and play a fifth quarter of JV ball.

Other players would play in three or four quarters of JV ball and then move up to varsity to play some more.

"All of our kids saw a lot of playing time because our numbers dwindled towards the end of the year," Lea said. "As a result, we have some players who have improved."

Lea added that the key to continuing to get better as a team will be spending time in the gym in the off season.

"We told the girls that we can't stop now," she said. "We can't come back in November and try to pick it back up. We have got to keep a ball in their hands and be dribbling, be ball handling, be in the gym shooting and getting into pick-up games."

If the Cowgirls were staying in the Tri-Valley Conference, that might be enough for the team to finally turn the corner.

Unfortunately, the team is moving up to Class 5A next year, rejoining the Intermountain Conference.

In addition to the Cowgirls, the conference will have a totally new look. Bend, Summit and Mountain View are moving up to Class 6A, but the remainder of the conference should still be tough.

Ridgeview finished second in the IMC with a 15-11 overall record and a 10-2 league mark this year. Although Redmond finished in the bottom of the conference, they still won two league games and finished with a 7-16 overall mark, including a win over Crook County.

Pendleton, The Dalles and Hood River Valley will also join the conference.

The Cowgirls lost to The Dalles, which finished last in the Columbia River Conference this past season.

Despite finishing last, The Dalles still won seven games, including one in conference play.

Meanwhile, Pendleton won the Columbia River Conference with an 8-1 league record and a 17-8 overall mark, while Hood River Valley finished with a 10-14 overall record, including a pair of wins over The Dalles.

"It's going to be a tough league, but we have to show up and play," Lea said. "Hopefully we are going to see some other teams in preseason and get some experience and see some wins so we can get some confidence in preseason, because it's going to be a challenge."

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