Team is unable to overcome a slow start to the league season as they fail to make it to post season play

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Thaiden Mullan goes to the basket during the Cowboys' home game against Pendleton. Mullan, who was one of the Cowboys' leading scorers, is one of seven seniors on this year's Cowboy roster. Other seniors include Kaleb Savage, Shane Kessi, Hunter Bishop, Dominic Langley, Tyler Humeston and Miles Chaney.The Crook County Cowboys had a lot of confidence heading into the 2018-2019 basketball season.

After all, the team had much of their lineup back from a squad that had finished third in the Tri-Valley Conference a year earlier.

In addition, several players from a JV team that had lost just one league game a year earlier were moving up to the varsity roster.

Add in the fact that the team had a highly successful summer season and things looked bright for the Cowboys.

"We proved in the summer that we could win tough games," head coach Darin Kessi said.

Early in the season, the Cowboys looked like they could play with virtually anyone.

After winning their first three games, Crook County was briefly ranked No. 1 in the state. The Cowboys stumbled a little late in preseason but still entered the league season with a conference best 8-6 record.

"Early in the season, I feel like we were clicking on a different level," Kessi said. "Then, I think our league was tougher than we thought it was going to be."

The Cowboys went just 1-6 during the league season, finishing the year with a 9- 13 record.

How much of that had to do with the move up to Class 5A this year is still up to debate. However, Kessi said that it did make a difference.

"I think moving up was a factor," he said. "I think that we were expecting things to not be as challenging as they turned out to be, and the boys definitely had their confidence shaken there for a while."

Mired in a slump, the team was virtually eliminated from any chance of post-season play before the league suspended the second half of their season due to weather-related problems.

Instead, the Intermountain Conference opted to play a league tournament to decide who would represent the conference in the state playoffs.

That decision breathed new life and new excitement into the Cowboy season.

However, after a tough first-round loss to Redmond, the Cowboys found themselves in the consolation bracket, battling for a chance at third place.

"We played well enough at Redmond that we easily could have won," Kessi said. "We feel like we turned a corner and got some of our confidence back."

However, that loss turned out to be the end of the year as more inclement weather canceled the remainder of the tournament.

"It would have been nice to play out the rest of the season and see what would have happened, but it wasn't in our control at that point," Kessi said. "We had a good early start to the season, but for whatever reason, we just didn't continue to have that same sense of urgency, that momentum that we gathered early."

The Cowboys lose seven players to graduation, and Kessi noted that will be a big loss to the team.

"They are just really good boys, and it's a lot of fun to be around them," he said. "They did a good job of supporting each other and supporting their teammates. This is one of the better groups of seniors that I have had."

Kessi added that his seniors, Kaleb Savage, Shane Kessi, Thaiden Mullan, Hunter Bishop, Dominic Langley and Miles Chaney are not only good players, but the kind of people who will be successful in whatever they try later in life.

"They are just good, quality young men," he said. "I think that they are going to go on and do well in life beyond athletics. There is some good substance to these guys, and I think that they are going to grow up and be good, solid men and that is certainly a win for me as a coach."

Kessi added that the coaching staff preaches more than just winning games during the course of the season.

"We spent a lot of time on a Cowboy vision and consistency," he said. "We focused on developing the whole player. It's hard to know what the lesson is going to be from this season right now, but I think it is a lesson that they can learn and be better through it. It doesn't always work out the way that we hope, but how you respond is in your control."

Although the Cowboys lose much of their roster to graduation, that doesn't mean that there aren't quality players returning.

Kessi said that he was pleased with how competitive both the JV 2 and JV programs were during the course of the year.

"Coach Conner Booster worked his tail off with the JV 2 kids and got those boys to keep improving and got them to buy in," Kessi said. "And coach Jeff Lowenbach did a good job with the JV team. I think it's challenging at the JV level because you never know who you are going to get as players and how many minutes you have them for. The team is getting pillaged off and on throughout the year by the varsity program, but I like how the team competed and kept working together."

Despite losing seven players to graduation, the Cowboys still have some firepower returning.

Sophomores Cayden Lowenbach and Kevin Sanchez both showed the ability to score at times during the season, while fellow sophomore Jesse Sanchez also started a couple of games.

In addition, juniors Jordan Graydon and Jrei Ramirez add valuable varsity experience, while JV players Caleb Arnold and Hogan Smith also saw varsity action.

Other players expected to step into next year's varsity roster include Nikolai Wiles, Garett Bernard, Abel Nunez, Zach Guthrie and Edgar Gonzales.

"The 5A level is a lot better than we were expecting," Kessi said. "There's just more depth than at the 4A level. But I think the outlook is pretty good. The kids that are coming back are hungry, and they are going to get better. So they are going to do some good things for sure."

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