'We finally did it': Gervais girls are 2A state champs
The final buzzer of the 2021 2A state showcase championship signaled the end of a journey more than half a decade in the making for the Gervais girls basketball program. The Cougars concluded a perfect season Saturday at Ridgeview High School, beating the Salem Academy Crusaders 49-41 to win the program's third state title in program history.
It was the dream ending for a Gervais senior class that graduated three weeks prior and had been playing together since elementary school.
"We started this team in sixth grade and being able to come out here and play this game and finish our season strong, undefeated, league champs and state champs – it means everything," senior guard Isabel Contreras said.
In a season in which nothing was normal and everything was in flux, the continuity of the Gervais girls basketball program provided the stability to weather a difficult year where other schools struggled. Led by the team's five seniors — Contreras, Marisol Ayala, Katie Hanson, Lilly Welburn and Araceli Vasquez — the Cougars were eager to treat this season like any other, even when the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening to cancel their final year of athletics before it started.
"In the beginning right when COVID first started, it was the worst feeling," Welburn said. "I thought that sports was already over."
The Cougars were coming off of their first quarterfinal berth in a generation when the pandemic hit in March of 2020. The seniors had been steadily building toward the 2021 season as the payoff from years of work for the Gervais girls basketball program. Head coach Kyle Buse took the reins in 2015 following a four-win season the year before and began building a framework that incorporated the elementary, middle and high school levels into one cohesive group.
With anxiety over the future of the 2021 season, the Cougars leaned on that framework over the summer so the team would be ready to play if and when they were given the green light.
"We found a way to fight through all the restriction and we worked, and worked and worked," Hanson said. "Even though everything was crazy, we tried to approach it as if it was normal and hope for the best that it would work itself out."
When the season began in earnest at the end of May, Gervais was ready. Beginning with a 62-27 win over Culver, the Cougars put together an undefeated slate over 12 games, including big victories over the defending champion Kennedy Trojans and a strong Salem Academy to earn the team's first league title since 1994.
Following the first two rounds of the 2A showcase tournament, Gervais, Kennedy and Salem Academy comprised three of the final four teams.
"A lot of people say we only win because we're in a bad conference," Welbun said. "Everybody in our conference is solid competitors. They're always there, giving us a fight."
Salem Academy knocked off Kennedy 36-25 on Friday while Gervais defeated Central Linn 40-36 to forge a Tri-River championship game and a rematch against the Cougars' fiercest rival this season.
"We knew that we had to work hard, because we didn't beat them by much the first time," Vasquez said. "We knew they were going to come to play."
Vasquez scored the opening basket of the title game, which got off to a relatively slow start for each team. Down 4-2 with two minutes left in the first quarter, sophomore Sofia Contreras knocked down a 3-pointer to spark a 5-0 run and take the lead back for Gervais, which it held for the remainder of the contest.
"It took us a little while to get started in the first quarter, but I feel like we were playing really hard on defense that we didn't have enough energy to get back on offense," Isabel Contreras said. "As soon as we started balancing those factors out, I feel like it just helped us ride right through."
The Cougars took advantage of unforced turnovers by the Crusaders and a rebounding advantage in the second quarter to take a 21-11 lead into halftime, an unusual position for a team that has often been defined by its second half comebacks in the past two years.
"We talked about that at our walk through, even though we won the first go around, we were going to make the adjustments," Buse said. "We were down seven at our place against Salem Academy. We were down by 3 going into the fourth quarter. They had us and we had to fight back."
Gervais continued to press coming out of the halftime break. Junior Mayra Perez knocked down her second 3-pointer of the night to put the Cougars up 26-13. They pushed their lead to 15 points midway through the third quarter before Salem Academy staged a 7-0 run against the Gervais bench unit to cut their deficit to single digits. But a 3-pointer by Isabel Contreras to end the quarter gave the Cougars a 32-20 lead heading into the final eight minutes.
"We just wanted to be able to have a strong start and push every chance we got," Ayala said. "Be able to make sure we didn't have those obstacles in our way."
Gervais continued to keep the Crusaders at arm's length in the fourth. Every time Salem Academy cut the lead to single digits, the Cougars would respond with a key basket or free throws. Sophomore Eva Sellers knocked down her lone 3-pointer of the night to give Gervais a 40-30 lead with two minutes left, forcing Salem Academy to begin fouling in an attempt to keep the game alive.
The Crusaders got as close as 46-39 with 20 seconds left, but Gervais made 7 of 12 free throws down the stretch to hold on for the historic win.
A number of seniors point to a middle school tournament at Philomath High School as the genesis for the team's championship run. The Warriors had won state titles in 1986, 1987 and 2000, and the team was looking up at the championship banners in the rafters.
"We were sitting at that gym in Philomath and Buse pointed up and said he wanted one of those banners one day," Isabel Contreras said.
"We were like, 'we're going to get you one,'" Hanson said. "We've spent our entire high school career trying to get one and we finally did it."
As the girls were finishing up their eighth grade season, the high school team was celebrating a surprise run to the state playoffs, winning an elimination game on the final play of the 3A PacWest playoffs to earn a berth to the 2017 tournament. It was the biggest moment to date for Buse's team, which had improved each season since he took over the program two years prior.
"A couple years back the team embraced the journey," Buse said. "Just enjoy what we're doing and have fun."
The next year when the quintet entered the high school program, the Cougars put together their first winning record in years, but stumbled down the finish, dropping five of their final six games to miss the state playoffs.
The team rallied in 2019, posting an 18-9 season to finish second in their first year playing in the Tri-River Conference. The Cougars returned to the state playoffs once again, but went on to lose in the first round to Grant Union.
Undeterred, the team returned even better in 2020, going 23-6, including a 58-35 home win over Stanfield for the program's first state playoff win in recent memory and a trip to the eight-team quarterfinal tournament. The Cougars fell in both games at Pendleton, setting the stage for the 2021 season — the last opportunity for this year's senior class to bring a trophy home to Gervais.
As fate would have it, the team's undefeated title run in 2021 mirrored the program's only other state championships in 1988 and 1994, both of which also were undefeated seasons.
"It's exciting for us and everybody, and I just hope we made our community proud," Isabel Contreras said.
With the goal fulfilled, it now falls on the Cougars' talented returning class of sophomores to pick up the baton and follow in the footsteps of the class of 2021.
"The younger ones see it and they see the excitement," Buse said. "They pushed those seniors and they're going to come back hungry next year to have their own opportunity as well.
"It's embracing that magical journey," he continued. "They wrote their story when they got that opportunity. It was very special. I love these girls."
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