Court is in session
Returning to the gym after an 0-24 season, the Gervais boys basketball team is eager to prove that last year was merely a one-year dip as the team sets its sights on returning to the league playoffs after a four-year absence.
The 2018 season was undoubtedly a flukey situation by any standard. Three of the team's expected starters transferred before the opening of the season, and a fourth was removed from the team for disciplinary reasons. That left the team's bevy of athletic, but raw sophomores to take over and earn their stripes one game at a time.
"They got a baptism by fire," head coach Ben Schultz said. "They were thrown into it."
That didn't hamper the team's spirits. If anything, it left the Cougars anxious to get back on the court minutes after the team's final 2018-19 contest. But the team was forced to wait, and after seven months, Gervais boys basketball is ready to show the Tri-River Conference that they're not to be ignored.
"We're coming in with a lot more expectations this year," Schultz said.
As well they should. The core of last year's team returns, and two of the three transfers — seniors Daniel Hernandez and Alex Kalugin — are back in Gervais uniforms for their final high school seasons.
Hernandez is set to replace last year's starter, junior Damian Tavera, who joins the wrestling team this year. The steady senior provides the Cougars with a pass-first play-maker looking to distribute the ball to a variety of wing and post options that Gervais has not seen since the days of 2014's Kylor Kelley, who is now Oregon State's big man.
"The guys feed off that," Schultz said. "They're really happy to have Daniel back because he'll distribute."
Joining Hernandez in the return is senior Alex Kalugin, a 6-4 forward with the body of a post and the athleticism of a guard. While the two were ineligible to play for Gervais last year, they have remained close with the team, and the Cougars are excited to welcome them back.
"It brings back that basketball IQ that four years of playing," Schultz said. "They bring that leadership, that senior mentality, that IQ that we're looking for."
Kalugin is only the first of many options that Schultz can deploy at the wing and in the post. Nine players on this year's roster stand at 6-foot or taller, including all-conference junior posts Auggie Guido (6-4) and Brian Limage (6-5), the latter of which led the Tri-River Conference in blocks last year.
The Cougars also boast returning 6-3 junior wing Michael Toran and feature a host of reserves like Domain Chuprov, Jack Reinwald, Manny Cardenas and Tyler Studor, who can step in and maintain the team's height advantage.
"In all my years of coaching at Woodburn and here, we've never really had a plethora of 6-4 guys or better," Schultz said. "It makes it a little bit easier to try to accomplish what we try to do, so when we go into these games, we're not the smallest team."
Fellow senior Xaden Ramon returns to join Hernandez in the backcourt, giving the Cougars a pair of quick, athletic guards who can pester opponents on the perimeter as the front line of the team's defense.
The group has entered the season excited to pick up from last year. However, many of them also developed bonds from playing on the football team. Schultz credits first-year football coach Tracy Jackson with building a positive structure that has the team entering the winter season with camaraderie and anticipation.
"He built a good culture that I try to build; it always starts with that fall sport," Schultz said. "Coach Jackson set those boys right on that path. We're just trying to keep that right now, and I've seen a total difference. They're focused and they're ready."
But can the team make the league playoffs?
That's the goal the players set for themselves this year, and one that Schultz thinks is attainable if the team focuses and commits itself at every opportunity.
Western Christian looms as the defending 2A State Champions, and Schultz looks at Sheridan and Santiam as tough opponents as well. But rivals such as Kennedy and Chemawa will have to endure significant losses from last year, and the Cougars are counting on their continuity to give them an advantage going into the league schedule.
"It's really open, and it's up to them with how hard they want to work," Schultz said. "We have a chance. I think we can do that.
"So far, we're committed, and we'll be here, and that's a different change in attitude. I'm just excited to get going. The guys are ready."
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