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Cougar boys basketball program is swelling with incoming athletes eager to play

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Incoming junior Leeroy Lopez probes the perimeter and looks for an open teammate in the Cougars summer league game against Woodburn in June.The gymnasium after school at Gervais High School in June is crowded with basketball players looking to get some time on the court.

With only 30 days in the month split between school, graduation, social commitments with outgoing seniors, work, vacation and various other engagement, players only have a small window with which to brush the rust off their basketball games before summer gets into full swing and gradually slides into fall football season.

Yet in that window, Gervais boys basketball Head Coach Ben Schultz has the enviable problem of trying to create as much opportunity as possible to get his kids on the court during the month-long summer league season.

"When we were getting open gyms, we were getting 24-25 guys," Schultz said. "The enthusiasm is there."

The excitement within the program is somewhat juxtaposed against the season immediately in the rearview mirror for the Cougars.

The team lost three expected starters to transfer before the first tip off, and a fourth was dismissed from the team mid-season, leading to an 0-24 year in which Gervais ranked second to last in both offense and defense among 2A programs in 2018-19.

"They know that we kind of took a back seat due to the number of people who transferred," Schultz said. "Guys understood that and they understood going in that last year they were going to struggle."

But that didn't hamper internal interest in the team. If anything, the open minutes in the starting lineup led to increased competition among players from the bench and junior varsity team, who were eager to soak up the unexpected playing time.

"It was tough for them to do that, but I think that they knew that they got better as games got on," Schultz said. "Our record didn't show, but we were getting better."

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Incoming junior Kevius Gutierrez pulls up for a contested layup against Woodburn.It was a baptism by fire, as Schultz describes it, but one that wasn't without merit. The Cougars competed against some of the top 2A programs in the state. The Tri-River Conference boasted four teams ranked inside the OSAA top 10, three of which went on to place in the state tournament, including 2019 State Champion Western Christian Pioneers.

The young players got familiar with the pace of play at the varsity level. After opening the season with back-to-back losses by 40-plus points, the Cougars finished with a 10-point loss to Culver and a five-point loss at Delphian.

"It didn't leave a bitter taste in their mouth," Schultz said.

After the season ended on Feb. 7, Gervais was eager to lace up its shoes that weekend and get back to work.

Flash forward four months later, and the Cougars are getting their wish, putting in the time at the gym and trying to harness that enthusiasm to propel forward into the coming 2019-20 season.

The Cougars also lost just three seniors from last year's varsity team, and bring back a wealth of experience in returning starters like Damian Tavera, Brian Limage and Auggie Guido.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - After switching between varsity and junior varsity last year, incoming sophomore Magic Gutierrez will look to garner more playing time with the Cougars next year.Gervais also has one of its biggest incoming freshmen classes in the past decade, bringing nearly a dozen new players into the boys basketball summer games and practices.

As an added bonus, two of the players who transferred from the program last year — Daniel Hernandez and Alex Kalugin — will be returning for their senior season with the Cougars.

Hernandez gives Gervais a veteran guard to pair in the backcourt with Tavera and incoming senior Xaden Ramon.

"Daniel has built his basketball IQ," Schultz said. "He's quicker, his shot has more confidence. His defense was always great, but it's gotten better.

While Tavera did an admirable job stepping into the lead playmaker role for Gervais as a sophomore, having Hernandez available to take that load and provide a senior leader will only strengthen the Cougars' backcourt.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - After transferring to Silverton for his junior year, 6-foot-4 post Alex Kalugin returns to Gervais for his senior season next year.Meanwhile, Kalugin gives Gervais a third interior presence to pair with Guido and Limage, another 6-foot-4 player who adds an aggressive offensive mindset to the all-around game of Guido and the defensive-skill set of Limage.

"He's just gotten stronger," Schultz said of Kalugin. " He's gotten better all the way around. His defense is better. He's got an outside shot. If anything, he'll be more exciting that way."

The enthusiasm is not limited to the basketball court. With new coaches in the football and boys soccer programs, and a baseball program that is looking to make the transition back to varsity ball in the future, the feeling surrounding the Gervais boys athletics among those competing is as positive as it has been in years.

"I think that there's a lot of excitement and buzz about the boys programs as a whole," Schultz said. "We're trying to get them on a winning format to take more pride in what they do. Come out there and be competitive, and that's what all of us are trying to do."PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Brian Limage will look to add a more rounded offensive game to his repretoire next year after leading the Tri-River Conference in blocked shots as a sophomore.

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