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The Lakers opened the year with no all-leaguers and a bundle of questions, but still keep winning.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Lake Oswego senior guard Luke Brauner took over as the Lakers' point guard this year and has helped keep the Lakers in contention for a league title.Just more than two months ago, things were looking, well, a little uncertain for the Lake Oswego boys basketball team.

To be honest, "uncertain" might not be a strong enough word to describe the questions surrounding the Lakers' 2021-22 prospects.

Lake Oswego was coming off an 8-8 record in the pandemic-shortened 2021 season and graduated five seniors in the spring, four of them Three Rivers League all-stars, including leading scorer Trace Salton.

Further, the Lakers entered 2021-22 without a returning all-league player for the first time in head coach Marshall Cho's seven seasons.

But fast forward to mid-February and the Lakers — who won three straight TRL titles from 2018-20 — are just half a game out of first place late in this year's stretch run.

So how are they doing it?

No one knows the team better than Cho (and longtime assistant coaches Robert Smaller, Wayne Parilla, Chris Farmer, Josh Quartermain and Mark Deuel), but even he admitted to some doubts as the 2021-22 season approached.

"I really thought this might be one of the more challenging years … in terms of experience and returning roster," Cho said. "And it was the first time in my seven years that I didn't have an all-league player returning on the roster."

After a slow start to the year — the Lakers lost their first four games and went just 2-8 in their first 10 — Lake Oswego caught fire. Since then, beginning with a 65-56 win over Westview on Jan. 4, the Lakers have gone 9-2, pushed No. 3 West Linn to the limit twice and beat top-ranked Tualatin 63-61 on Feb. 1.

"Even having all those early losses, we had in mind that 'This is what we do come league time,' that we will be the most battle-tested team in our league, which every year is one of the best, if not the best, in the state," Cho said. "So we never waivered in that. It's just what we've been able to do the last four or five years."

The Lakers players, however, never had the same questions that Cho did going into 2021-22.

"I'm not surprised about how fast the team has come together," said senior wing and team captain Sorena Torabi. "I have been around the program and seen what the coaching staff has done throughout the years and how they have responded to adversity. We have had faith and belief throughout the whole year. … We believed by working hard and taking in the leadership we receive from the coaches, we were going to get there no matter what."

"I'm really not surprised at how well our team has been able to connect," said senior guard Luke Brauner. "Our program does an excellent job of implementing traditions and (built) a family-like bond early on. This team chemistry is something all of us seniors and teammates have had for years now, and when new players join the (program), we have no issues welcoming them and quickly teaching them what it means to be in the Laker Family."

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Lake Oswego freshman wing Winters Grady has joined a senior-heavy Laker lineup that is battling for a Three Rivers League championship.

Lake Oswego has succeeded despite other challenges, too. There was the offseason disconnect caused by COVID-19 restrictions, the need to establish new leadership and position switches by a couple key players, with senior Carson Reno moving from point guard to shooting guard and Brauner taking over the team's primary ballhandling duties.

"It's the willingness of guys like that who were willing to step out of their comfort zone for the sake of the team, to sacrifice for the greater good … (that) has been really, really instrumental," said Cho, who recently won his 100th game as Lakers' coach. "And you have a guy like Sorena Torabi. … Every night he's outmatched athletically, but he grits and grinds and scraps for every rebound."

Beyond the hard work, great coaching, tough preseason and focus on defense, the Lakers believe that their camaraderie has been key to this year's success. The team features 10 seniors on its roster of 15 and that, along with the addition of 6-foot-6 freshman wing Winters Grady — the team's leading scorer — has helped keep Lake Oswego near the top of the TRL.

"I think the key to our fast start in league has been the difficult (non-league) schedule we had … and all the lessons from the close losses we learned," Reno said. "(And) we have spent lots of time together on and off the court. From team dinners to team outings like Blazer games and Beaver games, we have had lots of great memories."

"We kept 10 seniors … guys who grew up in our program. … (There's) a handful of guys who played freshmen, JV II, JV and varsity, guys who waited their turn to get their minutes to go along with guys like Carson (Reno), Marcus (Lee) and Luke (Brauner) who've been with us for the most part," Cho said.

"They dressed for games the second half of (their sophomore) season, and so they were around the culture that Casey Graver and Sam Abere were establishing. They got to witness when we went 12-0 in league two years ago, so after that, it was just a matter of making sure all the pieces would fit."

Now, with four regular-season games remaining, it's clear that those pieces do indeed fit — and fit very well.

"(We're taking it) one game at a time, making sure we play our best basketball as we approach the playoffs," Reno said.

"We still have so much we want to accomplish and that demands (that we) improve," Torabi said. "We want to be playing our best basketball by playoffs, and I feel like we're on our way to do that."

"Finishing out league strong is a main focus right now," Brauner added. "We know what we need to do to succeed."

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