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Bucks have excelled this summer despite losing team captains to graduation and playing without several key starters

PHIL HAWKINS - WOODBURN INDEPENDENT - With team captains Logan Robinson and Dessa Coleman graduated, it will be up to returning veterans such as incoming junior Erin Counts to help shoulder the leadership role going into next season.

Summer league basketball is a bit like an arms race. Every weekend in June, teams fill their schedule with tournaments that often feature six, seven or eight games in the span of just a few days.

It's a relatively short season, spanning just a handful of weekends before athletes part ways in July for vacation, jobs or other sports. But the gains made in those few weekends can pay significant dividends when the teams reconvene in November for the start of the winter sports season.

Unfortunately, that's just as much the case for opponents and league rivals, making the short but grueling summer league tournaments a necessity just to keep up with other programs.

"That's why you've got to do it," St. Paul girls basketball coach Dave Matlock said. "We played a lot of ball, but if you don't, you're definitely going to be behind the curve, because they're all doing the same thing and you don't want to be left behind."

Matlock and the Buckaroos have been doing double duty this summer, not only sharpening their swords for the coming winter athletic season just five months away, but also scouting some of their future competition when they return to Class 1A play for the 2018-2019 season.

The Bucks have spent the past two weekends playing at Country Christian High School in Molalla, the home of the 2018 1A state champions. In that time, they've not only played against the host Cougars, but also 2A state champion Kennedy, 3A state runner-up Salem Academy and a number of other high-caliber small school programs from up and down the state.

And St. Paul has done quite well despite working with a depleted roster much of the time. The Bucks are coming off a weekend in which they opened undefeated in their first four games before finishing seventh out of 16 teams. The week before they did even better, placing fifth despite the absences of two of their top players for the final games -- juniors Isabelle Wyss and Erin Counts.

"It bodes well," Matlock said. "I see this as one of the biggest reasons we kind of got to where we got to last year is because it so much prepared us for this kind of competition in the regular season."

St. Paul is coming off a season in which the team went 24-6 and placed third in the state in its final season at the 2A level. Although the team lost team captains Dessa Coleman and Logan Robinson to graduation, the vast majority of St. Paul's core players return to the 1A Casco League this year.

These past few weeks the Bucks have been getting their first glimpses of what the team will look like next season without Coleman and Robinson. Matlock expected their absence to create a ripple effect that would reverberate throughout the roster, forcing the team to take time to fill the holes in leadership and production. But he said he has been pleasantly surprised with how quickly the team has rallied together at the Country Christian tournaments.

"I thought it was real seamless and I was very happy about how girls stepped up," Matlock said. "It just felt like, 'Yeah we really missed those girls, but we can be the same team if not better because we're a year older and wiser.'"

Interestingly enough, the summer league has somewhat mimicked the same bumps the Bucks faced during the past season when starting guard Emma Connor turned her ankle and was forced to sit out for a long stretch of time.

That forced Matlock to turn to some of his less experienced players to fill the lost minutes. When Connor returned for the latter portion of the season and into the playoffs, the bench players who stepped up were ready to contribute for the state tournament.

"It seemed to make us gel, because it forced girls to do more," Matlock said. "Then when Emma came back, we felt much deeper, because we were forced to play without her."

As fate would have it, Connor is out again this summer and Matlock is once again using the absence of one of his key veterans as an opportunity to give his key players an extended opportunity to take greater roles on the team.

"Sometimes there's silver linings in the clouds," Matlock said. "I've seen the same thing this summer. We are able to play better offensively, because more girls are forced to do more things. Then when (Connor) comes back, we'll be deeper."

That's the beauty of the summer schedule — it provides a relatively consequence-free opportunity for teams to experiment on offense and defense and let players expand their games without worrying as much about the wins and losses.

As a team, that means doubling down on the defensive pressure and working more press into the playbook, a daunting prospect for 1A opponents considering that St. Paul had the No. 2 defense in the state among 2A programs, holding teams to under 30 points per game.

"Now that we've got more girls who can step up and play tremendous defense, we can step up and play full man that much more often," Matlock said.

Individually, it means players can add to their repertoire, such as Wyss — already a third team All-State post player — expanding her game toward the perimeter where she can work on her three-point shot and ball-handling skills.

"If she can get that shot, that drags a post defender away from the basket," Matlock said. "That makes it better for us, than if she has to go inside, because she's always undersized."

It will all be needed next year. St. Paul may have proved it can hang at the 2A level, but the 1A teams are just as good. The classification as a whole does not have as deep of a talent pool, but top programs such as Country Christian, Joseph and Crane have been working hard all summer and are eager to give St. Paul a rude welcome back to their old stomping grounds.

"That's why you've got to do it," Matlock said. "If you don't, you get behind. And next season you run into teams like that."

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