La Salle Prep girls basketball sets out to contend for a 5A state title
The cyclical nature of high school girls' basketball would suggest that the La Salle Prep Falcons are bound to have a down season sooner or later.
This is not that season.
Despite the loss of five seniors to graduation from last year's state runner-up team, La Salle has assembled another star-studded team that almost everyone expects to make a serious run at the 2018-19 OSAA Class 5A state title.
There is no shortage of optimism heading into Tuesday's season opener at Cresecent Valley, but that's nothing new for the Kelli Wedin-coached Falcons.
In six seasons since Wedin took over the program, the Falcons have compiled an impressive 147-20 record with six league titles (two in the 4A Tri-Valley League and four in the 5A Northwest Oregon Conference), four state final appearances, and two Class 5A state championships in 2015 and 2017.
What is new this season is the addition of three key transfer players -- junior forward Lyndsay Drango from Lake Oswego, senior guard Alyson Muira from Clackamas, and senior forward Lauren Vreeken from Prairie in Vancouver -- who along with incoming freshman Mia Skoro have meshed well with returning players Grace Felder, Jessica Loboy, Emily Niebergall, Amanda Sisul, and Addison Wedin (the coach's daughter).
"I like how quickly the girls have connected," Kelli Wedin said during a break in Wednesday's season-opening jamboree with Franklin, Ridgeview and St. Helens at La Salle Prep's Brick Oven. "It's a group of nine completely different girls and most of them haven't played with each other before this season.
"Everybody just makes everybody feel comfortable and confident, and everyone believes in each other. I think that's going to be a big piece moving forward. When I look back at my two state championship teams, that's when it was special -- when the kids truly cared about each other and were willing to sacrifice their own personal goals for the good of the team."
Although some of the names have changed, the Falcons are playing the same up-tempo, fast-breaking, shoot-it-if-you're-open offense, and the same high-pressure, ball-hawking, turnover-hungry defense that has been their bread and butter in recent years.
There isn't a true post player on the roster, but the Falcons have found ways to make their "five-guard lineup" as good as, if not better than, the traditional point-guard, shooting-guard, small-forward, power-power, center starting five.
Drango and Loboy are still working their way back from injuries, but even with only seven players for Wednesday's jamboree, the Falcons dominated their two 12-minute scrimmages against Ridgeview and Franklin.
Final scores: La Salle Prep 28, Ridgeview 9, and La Salle Prep 41, Franklin 15.
"We played really well for this being the first time that we've really played together since fall," said Niebergall, the junior guard who started both scrimmages alongside Miura, Sisul, Vreeken, and Addison Wedin. "There's always stuff to work on and we saw some of that tonight, but what we did also showed the people watching that La Salle is here to play.
"We're going to be here, we're going to show up, and if other teams want to play with us, they've got to match that. It's hard to find teams that can do that, because we're really one of a kind."
In the first five minutes against Ridgeview, the Falcons had 15 possessions and raced out to a 16-0 lead after going 7 for 14 from the field with two 3-pointers, one offensive rebound, and two turnovers.
In Ridgeview's first 15 possessions, the Ravens went 0 for 6 from the floor with one offensive rebound and 10 turnovers.
"That's some good defensive energy right there," Kelli Wedin said. "That's what we're striving for, for sure. I thought we were a little bit frantic when we didn't get a transition bucket, but I think that was just nerves, and then we settled in a little bit.
"I want them to be able to play in the half court and still have the same kind of energy that we have when we press. That will be a work in progress, but for the most part, they did a lot of really good things, had good energy, and had some fun out there."
Fun for the Falcons, perhaps, and if that means they end up making some of their opponents look silly, so be it.
"No matter who we're playing, we can't put on the brakes just because we're more talented," Kelli Wedin said. "My thing has always been about developing good habits. If you are soft one game, you're likely going to be soft the next game, and then you're playing a really good team, and then you're in trouble
"I don't want to go out and just crush teams. That's not ever our thing. It's not about running up the score. But it's about really helping my kids develop good habits and then laying that way constantly. We've got to stay sharp."
The Falcons landed in the top spot in the OSAA's Class 5A girls' baseball preseason coaches poll after drawing nine of 11 first-place votes and earning 107 points. League-rival Wilsonville is ranked second with 81 points, while Central (78), Crescent Valley (74), and Springfield (50) round out the top five.
"I think there are four or five other teams out there that could have got that top spot," Kelli Wedin said. "We have a lot of new kids. We lost five seniors, three four-year varsity players, and what we're trying to do is not easy.
"I think the target is on our back now and we've got everything to prove and we'll see what we can do with that. I don't know. I don't really care about the rankings. If we're No. 1 on March 9, I'll be happy."
Some of the Falcons' stiffest challenges comes in the first two weeks of the season, starting with Tuesday's opener at Crescent Valley, Saturday's home opener against Springfield, and a Dec. 11 road game against two-time defending 6A state champion Southridge.
Southridge's only loss to an Oregon team in the last two seasons was a 54-53 loss to La Salle in the semifinals of the 2016 Nike Interstate Shootout at Lake Oswego High School.
"I'm excited for the opportunity," Kelli Wedin said. "For me, it's like, 'Hey girls, we're playing the No. 13 team in the nation.' Nobody expects us to win again. My biggest kid is 5-foot-11 and she's really a guard, but I love our kids and I know we'll fight, I know we'll compete, and I know we'll give ourselves the best opportunity to win that game.
"Can we get a couple little, lucky breaks and can we get the ball to bounce our way a couple times? It's going to take a couple of those things to beat a team like Southridge. We'd have to play our best game and they'd have to have a few hiccups."
After that, the Falcons head off to Phoenix for the Dec.19-22 Nike Tournament of Champions, and then they'll travel to Bend for the Dec. 27-29 Summit Holiday Tournament.
"This is just the beginning," Niebergall said. "We still have three months to do what we've set out to do and I'm excited. Every single day, we talk about our goals and how it starts at practice and we remind one another what's waiting in March.
"I'm excited about March. It's in the distance, but it's so close. We've got a lot of work to do, but we're in a really good place right now and I'm very excited to see where this team goes."