Handful of contenders take aim at the throne
The Mount Hood Conference is loaded with basketball talent, especially on the boys side where four teams are entertaining thoughts of a run to the big-school state tournament in March.
Until someone knocks them off, Central Catholic remains the boys team to beat after going 14-0 through the league schedule last year and advancing to the state quarterfinals. The Rams top the early-season rankings with a 6-2 record that includes convincing wins over Jesuit, Grant and Lake Oswego — all tournament teams from a year ago.
The Rams are led by junior Darius Gakwasi, a top-10 scorer from last year, along with senior guards DeRay Seamster and Isaiah Amato.
Central is also the defending champ on the girls side and returns two of the league's top scorers in Abby Cooper and Tiana Abraham.
Following are previews of the five East County schools …
The backcourt duo of Jesse White and Evan Inglesby has played more than 60 games together in a Barlow uniform, dating back to the Bruins run to the big-school semifinals two years ago. The teammates hope to have more big games ahead in their senior season.
White, who has signed to play at Western Oregon, led the league in scoring with 23.6 points per game last year, followed by Inglesby at No. 2 with a 19.9 average.
"They have been playing together an awful long time, and they have a good understanding of what each other can do," Barlow coach Tom Johnson said. "They do get a lot of attention from other teams, who throw a lot of people at them."
It goes beyond the two main scorers, as the Bruins have nine seniors in the lineup. Josh Nomie provides the team with a defensive stopper, Jaren Hunter whips passes through tight windows and has a knack for drawing charges on the defensive end, while Joey Wolcott provides a reliable third scoring option. He is shooting 60% early this season.
"This group has a level of toughness that I really like," Johnson said.
The Bruins are off to a 3-5 start to the season, although three of those losses came in one-possession games. Plus, Barlow has played a loaded schedule facing four state-tournament teams from last year, along with perennial powerhouse West Linn, not to mention competing at the elite Les Schwab Invitational over Christmas Break.
"We are pretty disappointed with the way things have gone over these first eight games, we were really hoping to do better at 'The Schwab', but that will help us get better for league," Johnson said. "We just have not put together a full game yet. We have to minimize our mistakes, especially against those better teams, and we have not shot the ball as well as I thought we would."
The Barlow girls have started the season with a league-best 7-2 record, relying on the speedy play of rookie point guard Kennedie Shuler and the bruising presence of senior Libby Mathis in the post.
"Kennedie is very poised and extremely competitive — she's not going to shy away from the stage," Barlow coach Nick Hudson said. "We want to get the ball to Libby in the post, and she has gotten so much better at letting things come to her."
Mathis was second in the league in scoring last season at 14.2 points per game.
Senior Emory Miller adds a scoring threat on the perimeter, along with senior Emily Fortin, a transfer out of Oregon City, who played middle school basketball with many of her Barlow teammates.
"We've talked a lot about chemistry and cohesion," Hudson said. "That's the biggest thing because we have a lot of girls who can step in and contribute."
The Gresham boys picked up a wildcard spot into the playoffs last season and look to take that next step in the bracket this season behind a roster loaded with talent.
Leading that charge is four-year letter-winner Ethan Abrahamson, who led the team in scoring with 15.5 points per game last year.
"For the first time he has sort of a swagger out there, and he knows when his shot isn't falling, he can affect the game in different ways," Gresham coach Erik Lyslo said.
The Gophers also got an influx of talent with the transfer of junior forward Elijah Munyan out of Columbia Christian — last year's 2A runner-up.
"His ceiling is pretty high — he's going to be a special talent, and he's filling up the stat sheet well," Lyslo said.
Also new to Gresham is rookie Esyah Pippa-White, a summer-league teammate of Munyan's, who has earned the team's starting point guard spot.
"I always cringe at starting a freshman, but this kid is different," Lyslo said. "He's already had multiple double-double games for us in scoring and assists."
He is Oregon's No. 2-ranked recruit for the class of 2023 according to Coast-to-Coast Preps.
Senior Sam Igbonagwam leads the defensive end, always guarding the opponent's best ball-handler.
"He's our team leader. He commands the respect of everybody," Lyslo said.
Adding a boost off the bench is Nate Caro, a transfer from Centennial, whose 3-point marksmanship has made him the team's leading scorer several times over the preseason.
The Gophers (7-1) were the final unbeaten team at the 6A level this season before dropping a game to Aloha at a Century holiday tournament. All seven of Gresham's wins have come by double-digit margins.
"Our defensive energy has been the key — the guys have really bought into playing defense first and letting that dictate the offense," Lyslo said.
Gresham has the unique challenge of playing all 24 of its games on the road this season, while its new campus gym is under construction — a project that is expected to be finished in November at the earliest. The Gophers will use Barlow's gym for 'home' games on the league schedule.
"We've embraced it and are using it as motivation — no one has a tougher schedule," Lyslo said. "But there's something about getting seven double-digit wins on someone else's floor."
The Gresham girls managed only one win last season, but have surpassed that total with three nonleague wins over the first month this season.
"There is so much potential, and when they give the effort good things happen," Gresham coach Michael Leland said.
Leading this year's charge is seniors Joey Diaz Chavez and Heaven Schab.
"Joey is our tallest, strongest player on the court. She can score down low, but can also hit 3s," Leland said. "Heaven is our most athletic player. She has good hops and rebounds well, and she allows us to play faster."
The Gophers are in the second season of a focused effort on position-less basketball, scrambling the court on the defensive end and playing quickly.
"We don't want to get into a set offense and a routine, instead we want to get up the floor and make basketball plays," Leland said.
DAVID DOUGLAS SCOTS
The Scots look to remain a playoff contender behind a squad led by seniors Jermaine Robinson at guard and Dakota Lohmeier in the post. The duo has been a wide receiver-quarterback connection on the football team the past two years, building a chemistry that follows to the basketball court.
"They've grown up together and always been three-sport athletes, so they have been together a lot over the past 10 years," David Douglas coach Chad Reeves said. "Jermaine's leadership has been very positive, and his shot has improved, so now people have to come out and guard him. Dakota does a good job finishing around the hoop and uses his body wisely to play physical inside."
Junior guard Trenton Templeton gives the Scots another scoring threat, while sophomores and cousins Josiah and Jamaree Collins round out the rotation. New to the team is junior forward Jason Cooke out of Olympia, Wash.
"We've had a lot of close games early in the year and did a good job figuring out how to win those," Reeves said. "It's a group that likes to be around each other and it's been a fun start to the year."
The early season included a trip to Orlando for a holiday tournament and passes to Universal Studios.
"We didn't win any games, but it was a chance to eat meals together, a first plane trip for a lot of the guys, just another element of learning to trust each other," Reeves said.
Throw out the three games in Orlando, and the Scots hold a 4-2 record in the preseason.
The David Douglas girls went 5-4 in the preseason — the only MHC team besides Barlow to post a winning nonleague mark.
The team is led by senior guard Shayla Slossar, along with Paige Collins in the post.
"Shayla does a little bit of everything for us. She plays with an energy that sets the tone for the team," David Douglas coach Chris Cavanaugh said. "Paige is a gifted scorer both outside and inside."
Adding depth to the rotation is Jenna Stradley in the backcourt, along with forward Marake Wondwossen.
The Reynolds boys had a new look to start the season with an influx of starters from the football team making their way to the basketball court. But four of those players vanished over Christmas break, leaving Raiders coach Ted Aubin to search his depth chart to come up with a new lineup.
"It's been frustrating and disappointing with little to no communication," Aubin said. "We haven't had a practice with everyone in attendance all season — that makes it hard to get a rotation and build continuity."
The Raiders have installed rookie Scotty Riddle into the point guard spot.
"He has basketball savvy beyond his year," Aubin said. "You wouldn't watch him play and say he's a freshman."
Also seeing a boost in minutes this preseason is sophomore Jovany Guzman and junior Brandon Buffington. Bringing a veteran presence to the lineup is junior guard Keenan Coleman and senior John Stewart.
"We are getting better with our offensive execution, and we have more consistent shooting where I feel I can put four guys onto the floor at the same time who can make shots."
The Reynolds girls have won three of their last five games, led by point guard Lupita Dominguez and center Brisa Avalos.
"Lupita isn't afraid to take it inside and challenge the biggest girl on the floor," Reynolds coach Kelsey Stone said. "Brisa will outwork anyone on the court for a rebound."
Adding depth to the rotation is junior newcomer Sasha Riddle and junior guard Josephine Badoni.
"We've had lots of changes with five new ladies added to the team, and losing our top two scorers to graduation means others are having to step into new roles," Stone said.
The Centennial girls have put together a 2-7 preseason record with seniors Ellie Basinski, Charlotte Marcum, Mia Bratcher and track standout Angel Aluesi leading the way.
"We only have one player who had access to basketball before her freshman year," Centennial coach Jeff Stanek said. "No middle school sports combined with limited access to gyms has crippled our indoor sports."
The Centennial boys are off to a 1-8 start without a senior listed on the roster.
Inside the #s
Returning players among the top-five scorers in league last season, led by Barlow's senior backcourt duo of Jesse White and Evan Inglesby. Also back is Sandy guard Pierce Roeder and Gresham forward Ethan Abrahamson.
Barlow's spot in the OSAA 6A girls rankings — the only Mount Hood school in the top 20. The Bruins are 7-2 with a highlight win at No. 6 Tualatin.
Ranking for Central Catholic (6-2) heading into Thursday's league opener at home against Gresham. The Rams' only losses came to out-of-state powerhouses at the Les Schwab Invitational.
Number of boys games that were decided by 5 points or fewer last season. Central Catholic went 5-0 in their close calls, winning twice in overtime.
Number of home games for the Gresham boys this season due to construction of a new gym. The Gophers will be using Barlow High's gym on game nights.
This season preview is slated for our Tuesday, Jan. 7, print edition.
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