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Cowboys look to improve on last year's 10-14 record despite moving up to Class 5A

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Thaiden Mullan is one of the key returning starters for this year's Crook County High School boys basketball team.The Crook County Cowboys return seven players from last year's varsity basketball team, which finished the season with a 10-14 record.

In addition, Miles Chaney, who played on the varsity team in the 2016-2017 season but sat out last year, is also on the varsity roster.

In addition to the eight players with varsity experience, the Cowboys have added four players from last year's talented JV and freshman squads.

"Practice has been really competitive so far," said Crook County head coach Darin Kessi. "The kids are really getting after each other. I feel like this is probably the deepest group that we have had since I've been here."

The Cowboys finished third in the Tri-Valley Conference a year ago with a 7-3 conference mark.

However, Crook County failed to reach the playoffs after dropping their play-in game at Valley Catholic.

Crook County is led by seniors Thaiden Mullan and Shane Kessi, who led the team in scoring a year ago.

Other starters from last year's roster include senior Kaleb Savage and junior Jordan Graydon.

Seniors Dominic Langley and Hunter Bishop also each started at least one game a year ago for the Cowboys.

Chaney and fellow senior Tyler Humeston both have limited varsity experience.

The remainder of the Cowboy roster is young and inexperienced as junior Jrei Ramirez steps up to the varsity level for the first time, while sophomores Cayden Lowenbach, Kevin Sanchez, Jesse Sanchez and Hogan Smith are also expected to see significant varsity playing time.

With the Cowboys stepping up to Class 5A this year, Kessi is not sure what to expect. However, he doesn't expect the step up to cause the team a big problem.

"We are somewhat familiar with Ridgeview, Redmond and The Dalles, so that's going to help," he said. "The two teams that we really don't know a whole lot about are Pendleton and Hood River Valley, but they don't know a whole lot about us, either. I see that as a bit of an advantage for us because we are a little bit of an unknown for most of the 5A teams. I think that we will be coming in a bit under the radar."

Kessi noted that the team is getting good leadership from their seniors and that everyone on the roster is working hard.

"The seniors all have their own way of leading, but they work really hard," he said. "They get along really well, and they seem to be pretty accepting of the younger kids."

He added that the team played a lot of games during the summer, gaining valuable experience.

Crook County plays a brutal early schedule. The Cowboys started the season with a road game at Sisters, which reached the Class 4A state tournament a year ago. Crook County then plays Madras, which finished second in the Tri-Valley Conference last season.

The Cowboys then play North Salem, which drops from Class 6A to Class 5A this year, then play South Albany, which finished with a 21-7 record last season.

All four games are on the road.

The team finally plays their first home game on Tuesday, Dec. 11, when they host La Pine in a 7 p.m. game.

Crook County then closes out the preseason with a tournament at Marshfield and another tournament in Salem.

The Marshfield tournament has some of the top Class 5A and 4A teams in Oregon, while the Salem tournament features some of the top teams on the West Coast.

"We definitely have a schedule that is going to test us," Kessi said. "But I would rather us be tested early and go against difficult competition as opposed to easy competition because I think we will be ready when we get to our league. We will be pretty battle tested. I think that people are going to be pleased with the product that we have this year. The goal now is to improve on last year's season."

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