Next man up
Incoming Woodburn junior Jonathan Marroquin slices up court through opposing defenders, jukes to his right, then delivers a pass on his left side to teammate Jeovanny Marroquin, who cuts to the paint for a layup.
It was one of many highlight-reel possessions for a Bulldog boys basketball team that went on to defeat the visiting Creswell Bulldogs 65-32 on Tuesday, June 18 at the Woodburn High School gymnasium.
It was also a rare win this month for a Woodburn team that has largely tested itself against 6A programs. The Bulldogs fell 58-36 to the South Salem Saxons in the following game, a result much more familiar to the team during the month-long summer schedule.
Yet Woodburn head coach Raul Veliz wouldn't have it any other way. As far as he sees it, this is what the summer schedule is made for.
"We've gotten our butts handed to us a couple times, but it's been good," Veliz said. "We're really challenging our guys. It's been fun to see them."
For the Bulldogs, like most summer league teams, the month of June is about testing incoming players, adjusting them to the speed of the game and finding how the new team meshes together without the freshly-graduated class of seniors.
The scoreboard may be running and keeping track of the contest, but that's often little more than window dressing — something to let the referees know when the games are done.
"We're not looking at the scoreboard whether we're winning or losing," Veliz said. "That's up to me and the coaches. We'll see that, pay attention and make adjustments."
The players don't need to worry about the results, so much as they need to focus on putting themselves in a position to be ready for the upcoming 2019-20 winter season.
With most of the players having little to no incoming varsity experience at the 4A level, Veliz figures the best way to get them used to the speed is to play much tougher 6A schools. Much like taking a cut with a weighted bat in the on-deck circle, the players get used to the more difficult practice swing and come into the regular season overprepared.
"That's what we wanted," Veliz said. "We want to make sure we challenge ourselves the best we can in the summer, because ultimately nobody is tracking wins and losses in the summer."
Few high school basketball teams head into summer without at least one hole to fill. Either through graduation, transfers, injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, programs typically use the summer schedule to welcome new players into the fold and prepare returning players for taking on the responsibility replacing the lost production.
The Bulldogs are dealing with a whole different set of cards altogether. Of the 12 players who were on the roster for last year's team that went 22-6 and finished fifth overall in the 2018 4A state tournament, 10 were seniors.
Only 6-foot-5 senior forward Reese Miller and 6-foot-2 junior guard Jeovanny Marroquin return from last year's team, making them the de facto players in charge of welcoming the incoming class of JV players looking to make the leap to varsity.
"They've done a pretty good job of doing that bridge work," Veliz said. "They've taken the reins and are showing this is how it's done. They're definitely leading the way."
Veliz admits it's a big jump from playing 4A JV to 6A varsity competition. The team ended the week heading up to Clackamas, a state title favorite that features 6-foot-8 forward Ben Gregg, a Division 1 prospect who has received offers to play at Washington State, Oregon and Texas.
"Their learning curve is very steep right now," Veliz said. "They're having to put their feet to the fire and learn as they're going."
Maintaining the standard
Last year's Woodburn boys basketball team enjoyed one of its best seasons in program history. The combination of a strong returning class, an influx of transfers and the move down to the 4A Classification created the perfect storm for the Bulldogs to go further in the playoffs than any team since the 1995 team that made the 3A state championship game.
"The boys have really talked about they don't want to let last year's group down," Veliz said. "Those guys set a standard of how much it takes to compete at the highest level trying to get where they want to be, and that's what drives them right now."
Part of what made the 2019 team such a success wasn't just its skill on the court, but the camaraderie in the locker room. With 10 seniors on the team, many of them grew up playing together, built their relationships over many years and turned the locker room into a familial place.
Veliz said the incoming group is much in the same place. Making the leap to varsity together as a group has the added benefit that the team already knows how to play together. The JV team doesn't so much as need to learn how to play with Miller and Marroquin, as the Miller and Marroquin need to learn how to play with them.
"I try to find some of the similarities," Veliz said. "The one thing I love about our guys is that they've taken from what last year's group did and really tried to build a family culture.
"This is a really good group of boys," he continued. "What I mean by good, they're not only good basketball players, they're good kids. They get the job done in the classroom. They're respectful, which is great. We tried to establish that last year, and I'm hoping this is part of why they're like this."
Putting in the work
Without having to expend unnecessary energy on discipline, the Woodburn coaching staff can focus primarily on getting the team up to speed and ready for the coming season.
While next year's Bulldogs share the same mentality as the 2018-19 squad, the product on the court will be much different. Last year's team boasted six players on the roster listed at 6-foot-2 or taller, but next year's team will be much more uniform in size and ability.
Veliz hopes to use that to his advantage. Lack of height doesn't mean lack of athleticism, and Woodburn will look to take advantage of its athletes to outwork opposing teams on both ends of the floor.
"I think our team's strength this year will be our rotation defensively," Veliz said. "What we lack a little bit on height and strength, we will hopefully be able to counter it with our speed and aggressiveness on defense, where our guys are flying around and getting after it."
As any high school coach will note, aggressive defense leads to quick points in transition. Woodburn's height disadvantage will be mitigated if opposing big men are caught lumbering up the floor, trying to catch up with current play.
But the combination of increased speed and an inexperienced team often comes at the cost of control, and that's where the Bulldogs are looking to focus on to get better in June.
"That's what we're learning and been doing all this summer, really focusing on limiting our turnovers," Veliz said. "They're killers. We'll have a good little run, then it's turnovers back-to-back-to-back, and next thing you know, you're down another six points."
Whether that all pans out into another run at the state tournament remains to be seen. There are a lot of practices, shoot arounds, weight training sessions and unforeseen obstacles between the summer and the start of the season.
Last year's team set the bar, but with that fifth-place finish, they also left room for the next class of Woodburn basketball players to do even better. Come this winter, the Bulldogs will be ready to carry on that legacy.
"It's a jumping off and a starting point for the next few years to come," Veliz said. "They've got to put in the work, but at least they're playing with that level of expectation for themselves."
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