The outlook couldn’t have gotten any more grim for the Hood River Valley girls basketball team at the beginning of 2003.
Riding a seven-game preseason losing streak — which included two “shoulda hads” against St. Helens and Milwaukie — the Eagles were about to begin their first year of Intermountain Conference competition in an enormous hole.
But no one on the team saw it that way. The Eagles were confident that they could compete in the IMC — even if it was the home to three of the state’s top teams: Redmond, Hermiston and Pendleton.
Senior team leader Becki Flory kept saying, “we just need to learn how to win.”
Luckily for Flory and the 0-7 Eagles, there was still one preseason game left for them to learn before they had to leap head-first into IMC play. By no means was it easy, but the Eagles scrapped together a 34-33 win at The Dalles to get themselves into the win column for the first time.
That skin-of-their-teeth victory gave the girls a new-found confidence, and sent them on their way to winning three of their first five IMC games, and four of six overall.
Although the Eagles followed that up with a five-game skid, they still made gigantic strides and finished the year with a respectable 5-9 conference record (6-16 overall).
“The team took huge steps throughout the season,” second-year head coach Tracy Norton said.
“We improved a ton overall, and we beat the teams we should have beaten. By the end, we had improved every aspect of our game, and that is what I will remember.”
Norton described the Eagles’ final two losses against Pendleton and Mountain View as “disappointing,” but said her team finished about where she thought they would.
“I knew who the top three teams were coming in,” she said. “I knew that Bend and Mountain View were also going to be playoff contenders. But I felt that we would be right in there for the fourth seed.”
The biggest factor working against Norton’s Eagles this year was lack of court experience. Her starting point guard, Becca Meierbachtol, went down before the season and never played a game. Norton had just two seniors with varsity experience — Flory and Brittany Reed. She had two juniors — Anna Hidle and Alyssa Ortega — who had sat on the varsity bench last year, but hadn’t played significant time.
Other than that, she was starting anew. Sophomores Kristen Hedges and Talia Hinman, and junior Suni Davis were thrust into key roles with the team, while freshmen Stefanie Draper and Meghan Flem were tabbed as full-time varsity players early on.
If all the parts didn’t mesh, Norton would have very little to turn to when her young projects didn’t perform.
But, despite some bumpy stretches along the road, Norton stood behind her hunches, and watched the Eagles prosper. Hedges and Davis made the biggest improvements throughout the year and will be integral to the Eagles’ playoff run in 2003-04.
“I think Suni and Kristen are going to make a huge leap even before the start of next year,” Norton said. “It took them half the season to realize they could even compete at the varsity level. Now that they understand how it works, they are going to be leaders for us.”
Norton also expects Draper, Hinman and Flem to be major contributors next year.
“We will need a strong post presence, and Meghan will be a huge factor in the middle,” Norton said. “I will also look to Talia and Stef to help build a playoff-caliber team.”
Senior guard Becki Flory was named to the All-Intermountain Conference third team.