Looking back on the past three years at St. Paul High School, Dave Matlock is convinced that the current era of girls basketball will ultimately go down as one of the greatest in school history.
The Buckaroos returned home from Baker City over the weekend after finishing second in the Class 1A state championship following a 45-41 loss to the Crane Mustangs in Saturday's title game, and the St. Paul coach reflected on the resume the team has put together since 2018.
Three state trophies at the 2A and 1A levels, two undefeated seasons in league play, two title games, the 2019 state championship, a 49-game win streak and countless awards and accolades up and down the roster.
While the hardware is impressive and hard to ignore, it's the attitude and spirit of the players in the locker room that will be most memorable in the years to come.
"I'm just incredibly blessed to coach these kids," Matlock said. "It's probably the finest group when you take all the elements of talent, desire, resiliency — I won't ever forget these years, because it's really special to me as a coach."
Saturday's championship game was a much-anticipated rematch between St. Paul (28-2) and Crane (29-0). The two teams had clashed in the regular season, with the Mustangs running away with a 15-point victory in January to snap a Buckaroo win streak spanning three seasons that began with victory over Faith Bible in the third-place game of the 2A state tournament in 2018.
Since that loss it had been the Bucks' motivation for the remainder of the season to return to Baker City for the 1A tournament and make Crane prove its case for best team in the state with a championship trophy on the line.
And credit to the Mustangs, who raced to a 16-3 lead in the first quarter and withstood a late charge by the Bucks to hold on for their second title in program history, marking a passing of the torch between the two elite 1A programs.
"I know we are a great team, but this year they are the best team," Matlock said. "I don't have a problem saying that. They're very deserving. They're ultra-talented. They are the best team."
State championship game
The contest was something of a conflict of styles, pitting St. Paul's fast-pace finesse offense against an aggressive, physical Crane team that dictated the pace of play in the opening quarter.
"The game was very rough both ways," Matlock said. "We had to learn that was the level we had to play to that night. The first quarter they shut down our offense. I give them all the credit in the world and we couldn't get anything going."
After the initial shock, the Bucks got to work in the second quarter, slowly grinding away possessions and denying Crane scoring opportunities. In the span of less than three minutes, St. Paul reduced the Mustangs' double-digit lead to four points, trailing 22-18 entering the halftime break.
"It shows the resiliency of our team," Matlock said. "I really liked our chances at that point."
But as has been typical of Crane success this season, the Mustangs came out for another run in the third quarter, ballooning their lead to 14 points before heading into the fourth up 37-25.
Crane maintained its double-digit lead for much of the period and looked to have the title trophy wrapped up with 3:13 to play when sophomore Kelsie Siegner connected on a layup to put the Bucks down 45-33.
But a three-pointer from SPHS senior Karlee Southerland sparked one last run by St. Paul. The Bucks held the Mustangs scoreless for the remainder of the contest and pulled to within four points by the end.
"I was so proud of them the way they came back again and again," Matlock said.
St. Paul senior Erin Counts led the way for the team with 14 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and three blocks, earning a unanimous selection to the all-tournament first team. Fellow senior Isabelle Wyss added seven points, seven rebounds and three steals, joining Counts on the first team.
Siegner led the Mustangs with 17 points, while junior post Riley Davis dominated the paint to the tune of 17 rebounds and three blocks.
It was a difficult conclusion for the Bucks to accept, coming so close to knocking off the undefeated Mustangs on the biggest stage, only to fall one or two possessions short.
"There was an incredible amount of tears early," Matlock said. "We all believed we could pull it off. When you finally hit the end like that and it didn't quite go the way you wanted it, it's an incredible feeling of emptiness in those few minutes.
"After a short time, the pride of what they accomplished this year came back into their mind and they felt very proud," he continued. "I'm proud they showed that emotion, because it shows that they wanted it that bad and they gave everything of their school and their community. I know it hurts now, but these are tears of pride. You don't have these tears if you don't give everything."
Strength and resiliency
Part of what Matlock finds so endearing from these past few years is the team's commitment to put forth its full effort every single night. From the end of the 2018 season through the championship loss to Crane, the Buckaroos went 59-2, with their only losses coming to an undefeated Mustang team.
"It is incredibly hard to be up every night to win that night," Matlock said. "It's really hard to do that and we may not see that again."
In the past two seasons, St. Paul has beaten the eventual 2A state champion in the regular season, claiming victory over the Heppner Mustangs last year and taking a two-point win over the Kennedy Trojans this year.
Of St. Paul's 30 games this season, 18 came against state playoff teams — 14 of which went on to play in the state quarterfinals. That includes four wins over 1A third-place Perrydale, victories over both Monroe and Kennedy, which played in the 2A state championship, a 19-point win over 1A fifth-place team Joseph and a five-point win over the 3A fourth-place team from Burns.
"We played probably the toughest schedule we've ever played," Matlock said. "That prepared us, and our girls just had great resolve all year in playing teams, staying committed and consistently beating good teams all year."
End of an era
All good things must come to an end and the St. Paul girls basketball team is no exception. This year's team graduates Counts and Wyss — two pillars of the team's success over the past three years — along with Diana Hernandez, Abby Gonzalez and Karlee Southerland.
Matlock admits it will be near-impossible to replicate what this year's group accomplished, a testament to the impact that the seniors had on the girls basketball program. But he's also eager for what's to come on the horizon.
Junior Mary Davidson returns to lead next year's senior class that includes Madelyn Nicklous, Rilynn Saucy and Mayra Lozano. Along with sophomore Ainsley Goughnour and freshmen Anabelle Davidson and Frankie Lear, the Bucks have strong building blocks to work with for the 2021 season.
"I'm excited," Matlock said. "I really hate to see the seniors go, but it'll be another chapter to see if we can build a team that can simulate what the last group did."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.