Girls basketball: Gervais looking to leave 3A on a high note
If the Gervais girls basketball team could have started the 2017-18 season in March, they would have jumped at the opportunity. So high was the enthusiasm after last year's run to the 3A state tournament, the Cougars would have happily picked up after their 36-point first round loss to Dayton and done it all again a week later
But then, that wouldn't have given the Cougars an opportunity to get even better over the offseason, both by improving the players already on the roster and by adding a new generation of athletes eager to write the next chapter of Gervais basketball.
"We bring back experience, youth and energy," head coach Kyle Buse said. "That's what makes everyone excited."
The Cougars are in a unique situation to feature a team that is both loaded with senior talent while brimming with youth. Gervais lost just two seniors to graduation last year and brings five seniors and one junior to this year's squad. At the same time, the team boasts five freshman who made the cut and will be learning the speed of 3A varsity basketball firsthand.
For Buse, his aspiration is for the incoming freshmen to be as spongelike as possible, absorbing every bit of experience they can from the seniors, from the season, from everything.
"We talk about that to our freshmen a lot," Buse said. "Soak up as much as you can on these seniors. Take in their work ethic, the way they approach the game, the way they approaches practices, the weight room, just soak up everything because they'll be in their shoes one day."
Those seniors — Alyssa Ventura, Nancy Guillen, Karina Ramos, Daisy Correa and Natali Herinckx — won't just be ending their careers at Gervais, they'll be the last class of Cougars to play at the 3A level before the school drops down to the 2A classification in the 2017-18 season.
As such, they want to go out in the biggest way possible. Every team's goal is to improve on the previous season, so returning to the state playoffs is a given. But these Cougars want more. They don't want to be just another one-and-done first round playoff exit. They want to carve a path through the PacWest Conference back to the state playoffs, all the way to Coos Bay for the eight-team quarterfinal tournament.
"If we can make it to Coos Bay, that would be great," Buse said. "We're not shy about it. If we're going to do it, we need to do it and it kind of motivates the girls."
It's a huge objective for the Cougars. As exciting as last year's playoff run was, it came as a result of catching lightning in a bottle, winning five of eight games down the final stretch of the season to earn the final seed in the state tournament.
That team still finished the season with an 11-14 overall record and was just 4-8 in conference play. Gervais will need to improve on that mark significantly if the team hopes to avoid playing against one of the top two or three teams to open the state playoffs.
"If we are (making the quarterfinals), we're going to have to improve our standing," Buse said. "That means we're going to do have to do a lot more."
Fortunately, the Cougars have been on a steady trajectory upward since the team bottomed out with a 4-19 record in 2014. Since then, Gervais has improved its win total each season over the past three years and will seek to earn its first winning record since the program went 16-10 in 2013.
That's where the incoming freshman class will help. The Cougars run the same offensive system at the middle school system as they do at the high school, and Buse expects the first-year players coming off the bench to maintain a high level of play on the offensive side of the ball when spelling the more experienced players.
"I feel like our offense is going to be fluid," Buse said. "They know the offense already. They ran it last year. They shouldn't miss a bit."
The difficult part will be adjusting to the speed of the game and trying to defend against much more difficult opponents. The Cougars play in one of the most difficult conferences in the state, led by the defending state champion Blanchet Catholic Cavaliers and the third-place Salem Academy Crusaders. Those two teams will give Gervais a heavy dose of elite-level basketball, forcing the Cougars to learn how to defend against some of the state's best offensive players when league play begins.
"I'm more focused on where that defense is at," Buse said. "We've been stressing that a lot. We've got a lot of length out there and now we're trying to teach them to be smarter defensive players."
Prior to that, the Cougars will have plenty of strong competition in the pre-season, playing at tournaments hosted by Vernonia, Amity and Salem Academy in December. A strong start at those events will go a long way toward avoiding a top-tier team in the playoffs at the end of the season. But make no mistake, they'll be ready.
"They're ready to get out there on the court and not see the same team," Buse said. "I expect them to be just as hungry as we finished last year."
The Gervais Cougars open the season at the Vernonia Tournament on Friday. Their home opener is scheduled for Tuesday against the St. Paul Buckaroos.