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After half decade of improvement, the Gervais girls are ready to challenge the 2A elite

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Gervais wing Isabel Vasquez enters the season as the Cougars lone senior, and the only member of the team who has been a part of the programs 2017 and 2019 state playoff appearances.The 2018-19 Gervais girls basketball team entered uncharted territory last season, posting the program's best record in more than a decade, advancing to the Tri-River Tournament Championship game and qualifying for the state playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

It was a magical run for the Cougars that came to a halt nearly 300 miles from home in a first-round playoff exit to Grant Union. For Gervais, that's the kind of barrier the team has overcome this year if the team wants to make a coveted run at the state quarterfinals and prove they belong among the elite 2A teams in the state in February.

"Overall, our theme for this season is to just run through a wall," head coach Kyle Buse said. "We keep running into a better team, and this year we're primed and ready to run through that wall and get to the state tournament and push through league a little bit stronger than we have in the past."

For the past five years, the Gervais girls basketball program has been steadily moving the bar higher and higher. Since finishing 4-19 in the 2013-14 season, the Cougars have upped their win total in five consecutive seasons, culminating in last year's 18-9 run.

Every year, the Cougars have run into that proverbial wall to end the season, and every year the team redefines what it means to be successful. After making the state playoffs in 2017 and 2019, just getting to the tournament is no longer enough. Gervais wants to continue its upward momentum and see how far it can go this season.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Guard Isabel Contreras is part of the Cougars strong junior class that has helped the Gervais girls basketball team post back-to-back winning seasons in 2018 and 2019."Just that piece of having obstacles in our way that we can overcome is always fun," Buse said. "I think it goes right to the excitement and energy that everyone has been bringing since summer ball."

Gervais packs a loaded, versatile arsenal of athletes this season who are more than up for the challenge. The Cougars bring back all but three players from last year's team, led by its lone senior, Isabel Vasquez, and its core of juniors that include Araceli Vasquez, Isabel Contreras, Lilly Welburn, Katie Hanson and Marisol Ayala.

Isabel Vasquez is the only returning player from the 2017 team that made an unexpected run at the state playoffs, hitting the game-winning shot in the league tournament that got the Cougars to the state tournament.

The junior class came in as freshmen the next year, helping Gervais go 14-11 in 2018 before last year's breakout season. With a wealth of game experience under their collective belts, this year's team is holding itself to new standards and ready to show opposing 2A teams that they have the tools to compete at an elite level.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Junior Katie Hanson gives Gervais a versatile defender who has the size to challenge opponents in the post and the quickness to defend perimeter players."A lot of individual workouts in the springtime and summertime, heading into the fall workouts has just built everybody's confidence up," Buse said. "Players have even told me, 'I have seen a difference.' The workouts have made a difference, and we're happy with what we're doing. That kind of little stuff is paying off."

Standing in the way in the Tri-River Conference is perennial state champion contender Kennedy, which won the 2A trophy in 2016 and 2018. The Cougars fell in all three contests to the Trojans last year but pushed Kennedy further than most teams in a 53-40 loss in Mount Angel in January. To get over the hump, the Cougars need to take a page from the Trojan playbook and become a relentless defensive menace.

"We have to play four quarters," Buse said. "We played three against them last year at their place, and we need to play four.

"They just go on runs. We can't go on droughts. We have to be better offensively and pick up our defense, so they don't go on a run."

Gervais will face another state champion this year when they travel to Pendleton in December for the 2A Preview, taking on the 2019 state champion Heppner Mustangs.

If the team can improve its win total for a sixth consecutive year and combine it with the added strength of schedule, the Cougars could push for hosting a state playoff round, a goal that Buse and his team would be eager to embrace.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Returning guard Mayra Perez is one of two sophomores returning from last years varsity squad, joining backcourt teammate Salma Villegas. The pair are among the upcoming class of younger players looking to continue the Cougars elevated play into the coming seasons."That would be huge. If we could get a state playoff hosting here, so we don't have to travel six hours," Buse said. "We all thought it was packed for our league playoff game last year. A state playoff game — the town would shut down."

But for now, Gervais is focused on getting as ready as possible for the season-opening trip to Vernonia High School for the Vernonia Tournament on Dec. 6-7.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - All-conference junior guard Araceli Vasquez gives Gervais a dangerous perimeter threat who can stretch the floor and punish opponents who leave her open from the 3-point line.

Upward momentum

Since the 2013-14 season, the Gervais girls basketball program has improved every single season, making state playoff runs in 2017 and 2019.

2013-14: 4-19

2014-15: 5-19

2015-16: 9-16

2016-17: 11-14

2017-18: 14-11

2018-19: 18-9

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