By Jeremy McDonald
SALEM, Ore.– It’s a little repetitive now but the Salem Academy Lady Crusaders are off to the 3A Elite Eight again in Coos Bay.
Over the last two years entering this one, it’s been something: State Final Runner-up two years ago. Third last year.
But there’s something about this year’s team that is different.
“We’re definitely quicker this year than we were last year and we still have strong players, strong post, strong guards,” said Aimee Smith. “This year, our team is just one we’re not individuals on the court, we’re trying to be a family and just work together and play together as a team.”
To get to that point, they’ll have to get through Illinois Valley though in the First Round of the playoffs.
The Cougars came out swinging by building a 5-0 lead eary in the first quarter to only see a Smith-led Salem Academy team rally to take a 12-10 lead entering the second quarter.
During the second, it was a bunch of defense as an unexpecting figure stepped into an important role in Grace Brown.
The sophomore played an important role down in the post position as her older sister, Sydney, was battling foul trouble much of the game.
“It was hard I’ve never done it before, but I had to step up because she was getting out of the game with a few fouls,” said Grace Brown. “But I thought it was my job, I was looking forward to it all season, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to do it.”
Head Coach Ben Brown pointed to that everyone is gunning for Sydney Brown and Smith, but pointed toward that people like a Grace Brown, a Halle Baker, a Lindsay Larson, etc. to fill in the gaps that were taken away from Sydney and Smith as they advance to Coos Bay.
“I can’t say enough about Illinois Valley and their game plan going forward, they came out knowing what they had to do in stopping Aimee and Sydney,” said Brown. “I mean they had girls guarding them. If they came to the bench, they would’ve guard them on the bench. They were not going allow them to do it.
“And it took the whole first half for our secondary scorers, Hallie Baker did a good job. Lindsey Larson came on in the second half and figured out how to get their shots off, Kara did a great job tonight. They just figured out, ‘well, we’re just going to have to adapt and attack and it was their job to get it done for the team and they did a great job.”
The younger Brown and company were making plays when they needed to as Salem Academy led by two by halftime and sure enough, the Crusaders slowly, but surely, pulled away from Illinois Valley to advance to the Elite Eight for the third straight time.
For Grace Brown, she was an eighth-grader when the run started, but said it’s been a dream of hers for a while now.
“It’s been so cool, I’ve been dreaming about this moment and stuff,” said Grace Brown. “Just being able to do it, it’s like a dream come true.”
For the Head Coach Brown, he knows how hard it is to get to this point; let lone doing it three times in a row.
“It’s really hard to do. These play-in games, the first-round games are really tough,” said Ben Brown. “I know the girls never came in as the number one seed and it’s hard to be the number one seed because everyone’s shooting for you and trying to figure out how to play like a champion when you haven’t been one yet.
“It’s hard to figure how to take people’s best shots but getting back to the Elite Eight for the third time, getting back to Coos Bay, it’s a special place. I wish it was a little bit more netural but the community down there is awesome, it’s so much fun for the kids and it’s so much pressure to get there once you get there because you know how much fun the kids are going to have when they’re there. So it adds a lot of stress to it.”
But hey, it’s fun to get to this point. The trick is to finding that ‘killer’ instinct as they Salem Academy Lady Crusaders look to find it as they prep for the three straight day tournament in Coos Bay on Thursday as they start it off with Lakeview Thursday afternoon at North Bend High School.
“We talked after our first Blanchet game, our only lost of the year was becoming the hunters and not the hunted,” said Brown. “And I think this is another wake up as , ‘Oh yeah, we have to maintain being the hunters’, we can’t rest on the OSAA power rankings because that means nothing going into forward. The other teams don’t care.
“Everyone’s in the tournament. The eight teams are in there, it’s just match-ups that’s all that determines. I think the girls really needed this to say, ‘hey we can’t rest on what we’ve accomplished so far, it’s what we can go accomplish right now’.”
And right now, it’s the Honkers of Lakeview Thursday at 1:30pm at Marshfield High School.
As for the boys side, it’s exciting to see both squad make it to the same site for the Big Show.
“It’s special,” said Markel Moser. “It just shows that all the programs throughout and our school’s program on how hard both team work to get where we are. I’m so appreciative to God to give us the opportunity to be us through this.”
The guys team will face Cascade Christian Thursday at 3:15 pm at North Bend High School.
Photos By Jeremy McDonald