Walking off the court following Friday's 56-48 loss to the Coquille Red Devils, the Gervais girls basketball team was forced to reckon with the stark realization of just how quickly fortunes can turn at the 2A State Quarterfinal tournament.
In the span of less than 24 hours, the Cougars went from eagerly anticipating the program's first game in Pendleton since 1995 to dejectedly leaving the arena as the first of two teams to go home without a trophy.
But for a team that achieved such success this season under the rallying cry to "run through the wall," it was important to come away with the understanding that the experience was less the conclusion of a book and more the closing of a chapter.
"I think everyone enjoyed the experience," head coach Kyle Buse said. "We know we took the step to get there, and there were so many teams that didn't get there."
The rise of the Gervais girls basketball program has been a slow and steady process, checking off goals and reaching milestones with each season. There was no meteoric rise from cellar-dwellar to state championship contender in the span of one off season. The team's success this year — a 23-6 record, a second-place finish in the Tri-Valley Conference to the state champion Kennedy Trojans, a quarterfinal berth in front of a standing-room only home crowd — was born from years of work, countless hours spent in empty gymnasiums during practice and summer league games.
Friday's loss to Coquille, coming on the heels of a 43-34 defeat to Bandon on Thursday, was simply another opportunity to learn — motivation for next season to prove that Gervais has earned a seat at the table along with the other elite 2A programs in the state.
"We took multiple steps forward," Buse said. "Next year will be that final step of where we want to land at. All the girls are in control of that of where they want to work. We're definitely hungry and we all started to talk about the off season, workouts, what summer is going to look like.
The Progenitor, Isabel Vasquez
Of course in the moment, leaving the Pendelton Convention Center before the weekend even begun can feel like a crushing weight of failed expectations, especially when its the last opportunity for the team's lone departing senior.
If anything, the current era of prosperity for the Gervais girls basketball program began three years ago at Sprague High School when then-freshman Isabel Vasquez sank a left-handed layup to lift the Cougars to a 26-24 victory over the Scio Loggers in the 3A PacWest Conference playoffs.
The win ended a five-year playoff drought for the girls basketball team and set a new level of expectations for a program that had finished at the bottom of the league standings just two years earlier.
"I think she definitely has put her mark on this program," Buse said. "She was here when I was coaching her at sixth grade, and we kind of started the belief and journey that we were going to get to the state tournament."
Vasquez missed significant playing time her sophomore year, and while the Cougars' celebrated a winning season, the team missed the state playoffs — knocked out in a similar upset bid they had played the year before.
As the senior wing has improved over the years, so too has the program grown, going from fringe playoff team to state contender.
"To have her deal with that injury her sophomore year and come back that junior year and senior year not having to deal with that issue at all," Buse said, "it showed what that journey was and that four years is a long time."
While Gervais was unable to send Vasquez home with a trophy, it seemed a fitting end to her story that she was ultimately named to the All-Tournament Second Team after averaging 8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in two games.
The Junior Class
With Vasquez's departure comes the next group of future seniors that has developed in step with her.
Araceli Vasquez, Isabel Contreras, Marisol Ayala, Lilly Welburn and Katie Hanson will soon have the opportunity to follow in Isabel Vasquez's footsteps. In a way, their legacy has been defined by their most disappointing games, or rather, their ability to run through a wall each time a barrier has been placed in front of them.
Their first season ended with five losses in the span of six games, culminating in a 39-32 defeat to Jefferson in the league playoffs that quashed their opportunity at a return to the state playoffs.
As sophomores, they added four more victories to their total from a year before, finished second to Kennedy in the league standings, returned to the state playoffs and had their season end in a 22-point road loss to Grant Union.
"I wanted them to taste defeat and not think that everything is going to come easy," Buse said. "It made them hungry. It definitely was a good enough experience to know it was right there. You can't settle and expect it to come."
This year, the group raised the bar yet again, yet they are not content with merely showing up to Pendleton. Each season has ended before they were ready to hang up their jerseys, and it has been the motivation to work even harder. This year may have been an unforgettable season that set new heights and expectations for the girls basketball program, the community and the fans that support the Cougars. But it's not in their nature to be complacent with their accomplishments. This will be the new bench mark for next year's team to surpass.
"It was a special season," Buse said. "We say that like it was a dream come true, but we know that we didn't accomplish our dreams and goals fully, so we can only imagine what that feeling is going to be.
"I'm very happy for our team this season," he continued. "I'm very proud of the girls. The escort out of town from police that we got. The elementary school kids coming out. The girls youth basketball team that was there at our Stanfield game. Just the support of the community and everythng we've seen. It's been absolutely amazing and special."
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