By Jeremy McDonald
GERVAIS, Ore.– If the ball would’ve bounced their away against Chemawa and if Blake Lackner didn’t go off in the second half of the game at Gervais in 2016, the Cougars would have found themselves battling their way through the PacWest Conference League Playoff Picture under then-first year Head Coach Ben Schultz.
As they graduated Alex Isiordia and Derrick Jaramillo, names like Alex Kalugin and Brett Gieselman are there to fill-in the holes with size in addition to brother’s Auggie and Michael Guido that will add to the guard-talent in Elvis Valliejo and Pedro Villegas.
“It’s nice to have some height, we suffer from…we’re vertically challenged so it’s nice to have Kalugin he’s 6’3, (Nicola) Zarhloff at 6’2, Brett at 6’3,” “And then we have freshman that are 6’3 and lengthy and two of them. We got a guy who’s injured that’s a senior, he’s 6’5.
“So the one thing I like about it is, most of them still are quick even though they’re tall and that’s how we have to play. There was a fluke here when we had 7-foot-one-inch Kylor Kelly and that guy is a once-in-a-generation where your not going to get too many tall guys so we have to stick to the plan where we’re still going to be put the five best guys out there and be as fast as we can be and push the limit whereever we can.”
And this depth at height could be helpful if they come together as a unit with the Vernonia Tournament to start the season before hosting St. Paul at home on December 5, it’s just a matter of gelling through practice.
“I think we come together easy because our smaller guys are pretty fast and our tall guys know what they are doing, small guys know what they are doing so we just have to get them through the same intensity and we have to get into the same mindset,” said Villegas.
Schultz is confident that this could be the year that the Cougars could sneak into the league playoffs after being so close in his first-year with everyone getting use to his offense entering the second-year of it in 2017.
“It’s another year in where they know what they’re going to expect. The freshman, their buying into it because they play summer ball with me, so they know what to do,” starts Schultz. “The guys who are new that don’t, they’re catching on pretty quick…we didn’t cut anybody, we made the decision that the kids who are here, your here but your not set in stone.
“But you know, Elvis coming back, he’s getting looked at by a college so he’s excited for that situation and I told Pedro he does what we ask him to do off the court, on the court he could be first-team All-Conference….I think we are going to be better than I think people think we are, we’re not going to be a push-over like we were last year.”
Schultz spoke to how young they were in 2016 and kids like Vallejo who were underclassmen or were freshmen were just learning how to compete and play at a level where they found themselves in games like in the season-finale versus Blanchet Catholic or having a 15-point lead on Scio to start league; now it’s just a matter of finishing the job right with being more seasoned and prepared for those situations.
And Villegas agrees with that as they now use it as a learning experience for this year.
“Not hanging our heads when we’re down in points because mostly when we’re down like five or double-digits, everyone would start hanging their heads and everyone sees that and they start doing it,” said Villegas. “Just sticking together helping each other out. Good vibes, good energy helps everyone else.”
“I think we can get there by playing together, no turnovers, last year we had a lot of turnovers, which kind of messed us up and everyone keeps their grades up. It all starts in the classroom.”
Grades have been a big vocal point for Schultz this year and he points to last year trying to send the same message to his team, and now that it’s a new year it’s time to get it done in the classroom as much as they are on the court.
“They have to put the work in not only here but in the classroom,” said Schultz. “Last year grades just killed us, we were expecting to have guys available at a certain time of the season and they weren’t here and I can do only so much for them but they would have to want it and I think they do. We’re on grades right now, we switched to a trimesters here, so it’s a little bit different as where they go to probation or they don’t.
“We’ve been hammering grades now, we’re doing grade checks making sure they get stuff in and everything will be ready for us to go. That and then on the court, buying into the philosophy knowing that we have to turn up the tempo, we have to be able to push both offensively and defensively and I think they’re buying into it.”
With the season a few weeks away and Gervais starting to go over a few offensive concepts towards the end of their fourth practice, the hopes are high of what is to come in 2017.
Photos By Jeremy McDonald