My first full season covering boys and girls high school basketball at the Woodburn Independent came in the 2013-14 winter season. Basketball has long been my favorite sport, a byproduct of growing up in Oregon during the early '90s championship runs by the Portland Trail Blazers.
As such, I used to spend a lot of time on ESPN.com reading NBA columns from Bill Simmons, Chad Ford, David Aldridge and the like. My favorite articles always came during All-Star season when writers put out their lists of who their All-Star picks would be, arguing the merits of how to fit the league's best players from that particular season down into a 12-man roster.
I wanted to make a similar case for the student-athletes I was covering in northern Marion County, highlighting the top players in our region while speculating on what an all-star team from our coverage area would look like.
Thus the All-Independent team was born.
For five years, from 2014-18, I picked out theoretical all-star teams each spring consisting of varsity basketball players from Woodburn, North Marion, Gervais, Kennedy and St. Paul. It didn't come with any real honors — no plaque or medal or anything — but it was a fun column to write and gave me something to talk about between winter and spring seasons.
Last year I skipped writing my All-Independent team. At the time, I recently had become managing editor and was unable to devote as much time to covering high school athletics as in year's past. I felt unqualified to write on each players' merits, having only watched one to three contests from each team during the season.
This past season I was fortunate enough to cover basketball much more regularly, and since we're in the midst of an unprecedented dearth of high school athletic coverage, it felt like an ideal time for the column's glorious return.
But first a quick refresher on the All-Independent parameters.
My goal is to create the best team possible to play an actual game of basketball. A starting five consisting of nothing but post players and forwards is going to have a hard time generating offense and defending the perimeter. An all-guard team may have dynamic ballhandling, but would get eaten up inside.
All five schools get at least one player on the team. I don't care if their team is 0-22 for the season (and they have been on a few occasions), everyone gets at least some recognition. But from there on, it's a meritocracy.
Why only basketball?
We cover more than a dozen sports across three different athletic seasons. So why only feature one sport in an all-star column? Because I (kind of) know basketball. If I were to write an all-star column of wrestlers or volleyball players, I'd just make a fool of myself. I don't know the sports well enough to feel comfortable making talent evaluations. Some sports, like football or golf, I don't get the opportunity to watch very much during the season.
Remember, this is all just for fun
If you're a regular fan, parent or family member of a specific team, you've seen much more of your team than I have and are more knowledgeable of their skills and limitations. I'm making a judgment call from watching maybe five to eight games of each team during the season — a relatively small sample size. If you think my selections are wrong, chances are you're probably right! This whole column is sparking a debate. Let me hear your ideal 12-person team from our coverage area. OK? OK. Let's begin.
Erin Counts, Sr. — St. Paul
One of the no-brainer picks for my starting lineup. Over the past four years, Counts has emerged as one of the premier playmakers in the region, ultimately garnering Co-Player of the Year honors in the 1A classification as a senior this year. Although tall enough to be one the larger posts at the 1A level, head coach Dave Matlock turned the offense over to Counts early in her high school career and she has blossomed — giving the Bucks a reliable ball-handler with a shooting touch, high game IQ, athleticism and the length to be a defensive pest on the perimeter and capable rebounder on the interior while snaking passes over and around smaller opposing guards.
Araceli Vasquez, Jr. — Gervais
The lead guard for the Gervais Cougars, I love the idea of moving Vasquez over to more of a shooting role. Although she runs the offense for Gervais, Vasquez doesn't put up big assist numbers for a point guard — which is partly a product of the Cougars' ability to handle the ball at multiple positions. Her best skill is her scoring ability from the perimeter, where she can catch fire from 3-point range and drop multiple long jumpers in a quarter that can either be a back-breaker for an opponent trying to catch up, or just what her team needs to end a slump.
Katie Ensign, Sr. — North Marion
From Emily Scanlan to Ensign to Jaydan Sahlin, the North Marion girls recently have had a strong run of lanky, athletic wings with oodles of defensive potential. Ensign has emerged into a premier 3-and-D perimeter player these past two years at North Marion. Ensign pulled down 12 boards a game in league contests, averaged 1.6 steals and blocks and is happy stepping behind the 3-point arc to stretch the opposing team's defense. She can handle the ball some, be the point of a defensive attack and bang down low in the paint — just a real versatile player to have on the court.
Isabelle Wyss, Sr. — St. Paul
Although she's the shortest player in the starting lineup, Wyss' athleticism more than makes up for it. A state champion jumper and sprinter in track and field, Wyss is able to outwork and outjump opposing players in the paint, extending her abilities in the interior far above her height. Wyss joins Counts as a 1A Player of the Year as a junior in 2019 and has gobs of experience in high-pressure situations from playing in state championship games in volleyball, basketball and track and field.
Sophia Carley, Sr. — Kennedy
The other easy selection for my starting lineup, Carley is a two-time state player of the year at the 2A level and three-time Tri-River Conference Player of the Year. A rare post above 6-feet tall at her level, Carley has developed into a dominant post player for the Trojans, making high-percentage shots while playing top-level defense. Her overall averages are relatively low for her skill level, but that's partly due to the fewer minutes she plays during blowout victories. Since her sophomore year, Carley has averaged 13.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in nine games at the state quarterfinal tournament, including an impressive 20/11/3 mark in this year's tourney.
Aria Kent, So. — Woodburn
Woodburn's first selection comes from their sophomore playmaker, who is quickly emerging as one of the top multitool players in the Oregon West Conference. Kent's ability to suck in defenses by driving to the hoop and dumping to an open teammate is perfect for a team like this with so many highly skilled posts and forwards. Although she's still a bit of a streaky shooter, Kent can punish teams from long range on the right night and possesses all the tenacity to be a disruptive defensive player.
Taiya Kent, Sr. — Woodburn
Kent's older sister, Taiya, is the type of high-effort player that every coach loves to have on her team. Taiya went from a ball-dominant point guard to one of the conference's most potent rebounders from the guard position, outhustling much bigger players to loose balls via superior athleticism and sheer force of will. Like Aria, Taiya can step back and hit a 3 if needed and is another defensive pest in the backcourt.
Bella Vasquez, Sr. — Gervais
Like Ensign, Vasquez is a versatile perimeter player with good defensive instincts who can step into the interior and shine. Vasquez doesn't have the touch from long distance that Ensign does, but she is adept at losing her defender and cutting to the basket for open layups. Her length and athleticism give Vasquez the ability to guard every position on the court, and the experience of being a four-year varsity player makes her an ideal leader from the bench on the All-Independent team.
Mya Hammack, Jr. — North Marion
North Marion's lead guard has evolved over the years from an overly opportunistic defender to a much more calculated player this year. Hammack emerged on the Huskies more than two years ago as a potent ball hawk, whose aggressiveness occasionally left her out of position or in foul trouble. As a junior, Hammack is much more effective in shutting down opposing guards and limiting mistakes on offense while being a threat from 3-point range.
Ellie Cantu, Jr. — Kennedy
The Trojans' junior forward is the perfect complement to Carley, giving Kennedy an athletic finisher at the rim if opponents look to double team in the post. Cantu is big enough and strong enough to work in the paint, but can step out for a midrange jumper and knock down the 3. Her size and athleticism make her dangerous in the open court on either side of the ball, where she can intercept passes and kick it up to an open teammate or be on the conversion-side of a fast break.
Hailey Arritola, Jr. — Kennedy
Arritola continues the recent tradition of overzealous defensive guards in Mount Angel, taking the torch from former players like Taylor Brown and Kaylin Cantu. The Kennedy junior combines with Cantu, Carley and her Trojan teammates to be a smart trap defender. Arritola also is a capable floor leader, running the offense with limited mistakes while being able to take on the scoring load if asked to.
Katie Hanson, Jr. — Gervais
My last selection was tough, because a lot of capable players were left off this list. Hanson isn't as polished offensively as her former teammate and fellow wing Mary Davidson on the Buckaroos. She can't stretch the floor as well as Willow Neshem or Lina Cabrera on the Bulldogs. But she is a smart, battle-tested defender and a state champion sprinter, making her a nightmare to play against. While many players on this team need the ball to thrive, Hanson is able to make her impact elsewhere on the court — diving for loose balls, disrupting passing lanes, defending the opponents' best player, throwing elbows in the post. Defense often gets overlooked on all-star teams, because it's harder to quantify than offense. But if you look at the state championship games each year, they're almost always between two of the top defensive teams in the state. Offense may come and go, but defense travels well and Hanson is an ideal player to finish this list.This is probably the strongest all-around season of girls high school basketball since I've been at the Woodburn Independent, and thus has a lot of very capable student-athletes that I considered, but ultimately passed on. Woodburn has a number of strong 3-point shooters; North Marion has a top-five defense at the 4A level, and the Gervais-Kennedy-St. Paul small school triumvirate is a goldmine of high-effort, quality players.
But I'm pretty confident in my selections for this year's team. It has enough rebounding to choke a donkey, it has a never-ending wave of perimeter defenders who can shoot the ball and manage an offense, it has smart, capable defenders at every position.
As I stated before, many of you have likely seen more of your favorite team than I have. So if you think I've made a mistake in my selections (let's face it, probably), let me know who you'd have on your team — sound off on the Facebook message boards or email me a letter to the editor with your picks.
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