St. Paul girls hoops among the state's best; boys trying to break through
The St. Paul girls basketball team had plenty of success in the 2A classification last season, finishing 24-7 and third in the state tournament. Now, as the Bucks return to 1A competition, they have redemption in the form of a state championship in mind.
Eight of St. Paul's 10 players return from last year's team. With Logan Robinson and Dessa Coleman being the lone departures, senior Emma Connor and juniors Erin Counts and Isabelle Wyss step into leadership roles for the Bucks.
Coach Dave Matlock said this team understands its potential.
"They really believe the sky is the limit if they all put the work in," he said. "The hunger is there, the confidence is there and the energy has been phenomenal in practice. Even though we're dropping down to 1A, we know it's going to be a very hard road."
That road begins at 7 p.m. Thursday for St. Paul with a home game against 3A Scio. The Bucks follow that up with a matinee game against 2A Heppner on Saturday at 12:30 p.m., also at St. Paul High.
Matlock said the mental and physical maturity of his players has improved since last year. Both changes are expected with so many returnees, but he said their approach has been "excellent."
"We set the bar really high and that's how they work at practice," he said. "The younger girls absorb that and it becomes a habit pattern."
According to Matlock, the Bucks are a fast break team that wants to "run like crazy." Defense, however, is of equal importance and he said St. Paul's goal every season is to be one of the best numeric defenses in the state.
The numbers proved the Bucks' mettle last season against 2A competition.
"Last year we only gave up 29 and a half points per game for the whole year," Matlock said. "Our players understand that if we don't have to score a lot of points that night we can still win if we play the kind of defense that we're capable of."
Matlock is in his fourth year coaching St. Paul, boasting a record of 54-27. It's been a steady ascent for his program regardless of its classification.
"This is the most fun place I've ever coached and this is probably the most fun group I've ever coached," Matlock said. "They have great character and personality and they just don't back down to any challenge. This is a special group."
After his team won five games in his first season and 14 last year, boys coach Todd Swan is eagerly anticipating the 2018-2019 season.
The Bucks were one ranking away from making the playoffs last year, something Swan said is a chip on their collective shoulder. Five senior starters lead a group that not only wants to make the postseason, but advance.
"There's a lot of buzz and excitement around the program," Swan said. "Two years ago when I got the position, we changed philosophies in how we were going to play. Since then, we've made significant improvement."
Like their counterparts on the girls team, the St. Paul boys like to play fast. Swan said the Bucks would like to avoid setting up any kind of half-court offense if they can help it – not because they aren't capable, but because they thrive in transition.
The transition from football to basketball season has made things difficult, however. The Bucks' football team played in the state championship game on Saturday, leaving just three days of practice for those players – which constitutes the entirety of the Bucks' starting lineup in basketball – to prepare for the season in their next sport.
Jaidyn Jackson, Justin Herberger, Zach Brentano, Eric Diaz and Rawley Koch are the likely starters throughout the season, and all of them are fresh off a grueling football season.
"We have a great bench with some talented younger kids, but these seniors have been through a lot the last couple of years," Swan said. "I think they're battle tested and will be ready to go."
On top of that challenge, junior Alex Dela Cerda will miss a large portion of the season due to a family commitment, according to Swan. While things appear to be in flux, Swan is empathizing with what his players are going through, having been an assistant football coach at the school in the past.
"I know the importance of maintaining focus on your current sport," Swan said. "We haven't done anything basketball-related with football players because we wanted them to be 100 percent focused on football.
"We're going to hit the ground running, and we'll be a little behind in terms of schemes, but having nine seniors in the program helps."