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Crook County finishes in fourth place in the Intermountain Conference, a big step up from a year ago

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Jillian Nguyen throws a pass during the Cowgirls' second game against Ridgeview this year. Nguyen is one of just three seniors on this year's Cowgirl roster. Crook County head coach Heidi Lea recently praised Nguyen for her enthusiasm and leadership for the younger Cowgirls. The Crook County High School girls basketball team did not reach their goal of making it to the playoffs this year.

However, the team did take a giant step forward toward being more competitive at the Class 5A level.

After finishing the 2018-19 basketball season with a 3-17 record and a fifth-place finish in the Intermountain Conference, the Cowgirls improved to 6-15 this year and, more importantly, moved up to fourth place in league.

"We did some great things this year," Crook County head coach Heidi Lea said. "I'm excited."

The Cowgirls finished with a 4-6 intermountain Conference record. In addition, the Cowgirls are closer to the teams they are losing to than they were a year ago.

Crook County averaged 39.5 points a game in 2019-20, up from 33.0 points the previous year.

The team also improved defensively, holding opponents to 51.3 points a game compared to 53.2 the previous year.

However, Crook County still has plenty of work to do if it wants to be a playoff contender.

"We have to increase our ball handling," Lea said. "Just getting the ball up the court and taking care of it and then cutting down our turnovers. You can't give a team 20 or 30 extra chances on the offensive end and expect to win."

The Cowgirls do have plenty of reason for optimism.

Not only do just three players graduate from this year's team, most of the junior varsity team also picked up some valuable varsity experience this year, leaving Crook County with one of the most experienced teams in the IMC.

Not only that, but the Cowgirl JV team lost just three games the entire year, splitting with league champion Ridgeview and second place Pendleton and dropping an overtime game to Mountain View.

Adding to the optimism, the Cowgirls return all five of their starters, while third place The Dalles graduates all but one of this year's varsity team.

Lea said that although they played sparingly, the team's three seniors have played a vital role in Crook County's improvement.

"Our seniors, they have been around a little bit," Lea said. "They have always had leadership, and they are just trying to improve each day. That makes the younger kids see that work ethic, and that's been great for us."

Lea added that senior guard Jillian Nguyen has been especially valuable because of her enthusiasm and positive attitude.

The Cowgirls return a lot of firepower with junior guards Teagan Freeman and Dallas Hutchins showing the ability to score points.

Posts Liz Barker, a junior, and Grace Brooks, a sophomore, helped the Cowgirls outrebound most of their opponents this year, while both also showed the ability to score.

Point guard McCall Woodward, a sophomore, also showed the ability to score late in the year, as did fellow sophomore Josie Kasberger.

Other returning Cowgirls with varsity experience include McKenzie Jonas, Lauren Papke, Taylor Joyce, Zoe Guthrie, Abby Barker and Emma Bales.

In addition, several other members of the JV team have shown the ability to score, adding to the optimism.

"We want to still be playing now next year," Lea said during warmups for the Cowboys playoff game on Saturday. "The Dalles loses their entire team next year, so if you look at the future, it's a very doable goal to be in the top three next year."

Still, getting into the top tier of the IMC may take work, since both Ridgeview and Pendleton return most of their varsity roster.

Not only that, Crook County has a ways to go if it wants to be competitive beyond the IMC.

In the last two years, the conference has managed to win just one postseason game, a 56-52 come-from-behind victory by Ridgeview over Rex Putnam this past Friday.

Other than that one game, the conference has lost its playoff games by an average of nearly 30 points a game.

Still, Ridgeview's win on Friday shows that the conference is making progress. With work, the Cowgirls could be part of a league-wide resurgence.

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