Coach Tracy Norton and the Hood River Valley girls basketball team are approaching the new season a little differently than in years past.
Instead of waiting until mid-January to discover their rhythm, the Eagles are hoping to find continuity early on — something that was missing during the first month of the 2002-03 season when the team started 0-7.
“It seemed like we didn’t have any chemistry last year, especially early in the season,” said junior guard Kristen Hedges, who is one of four returning starters.
“This year already seems different, though. We played a lot over the summer, and we are more together on and off the court because of it.”
Both the players and coaches agree that an improved sense of team unity could be critical to early-season success this year.
The Eagles are more of an altruistic bunch this year, willing to share the glory for the good of the team. But they are also a more cohesive, athletically inclined unit than last year, which should provide a boost on both ends of the floor.
“We have a lot of quickness with our guards and forwards, but we also have more size than last year, which should open things up,” said Norton, the third-year head coach.
“Anna (Hidle) and Suni (Davis) have improved tremendously, and our other returning players have also polished their overall games. We hope that will get us off to a good start.”
Norton added that she expects Hidle and Davis to emerge as the team’s two on-court leaders because of the new-found confidence they developed while playing in club tournaments over the summer.
“I think they are going to surprise some people,” she said. “Neither of them really blossomed until last summer, and I think their improved skills and confidence will make a huge difference for us.”
Hidle, a three-year varsity veteran, will carry the load in the paint along with sophomore returning starter Meghan Flem.
Juniors Hailey Christensen and Jillian Jones, and freshman Sandra Jefferies will also see time in the paint for the Eagles.
Meanwhile, Davis will take over the primary ball-handling responsibilities as the starting point guard — a role that Hedges managed most of last season, but willingly relinquished this year.
“Suni and I work really well together, and I would almost prefer to move more without the ball,” Hedges said. “I can play point guard if needed, but Suni has already shown that she’s going to be a good fit at the position.”
Rounding out the starting lineup is junior Katie Flory, who went from being a varsity swing player last year to one of the Eagles’ biggest offensive threats.
She also possesses quick hands and has the ability to rebound, giving Norton another front-court option in a conference traditionally dominated by strong inside teams such as Hermiston, Redmond and Bend.
“We’re still trying to figure out what groups work best together,” Norton said. “But we have a pretty good idea of who is going to contribute the most. We don’t really have a set lineup, but we will probably go with the most athletic, best defensive unit whenever possible.”
Another player who could crack the starting five is senior Alyssa Ortega, a third-year varsity player who was hampered by injuries most of last season.
A consistent mid-range jump shot and an ability to get into the lane make Ortega a reliable first player off the bench for the Eagles, who also hope to find minutes for underclassmen Rochelle Friend and Mariah Herman.
“We want to get as many kids in the game as we can during the preseason,” Norton said. “We are lucky to have some experience this year, but we are still a very young team. So if we can get the younger players comfortable before league play begins, we will be a lot better off down the road.”
If all the pieces come together, as they did during Monday’s Hood River Jamboree, the Eagles believe they can contend for a playoff spot in their second year of Intermountain Conference play.
Norton said she expects Redmond and Pendleton to be the teams to beat, with Hermiston and Bend close behind. But with six
returning players, HRV isn’t too far back. And if everything meshes both inside and out, the Eagles could be in the running for the No. 3 or No. 4 playoff seed.
“We still have a pretty strong team left over from last year, and we really got better over the summer,” said Flory. “We would all love to get to the playoffs, but it’s still too early to predict. I just know it’s been a long time.”
Flory added that she thinks HRV is very balanced this year, featuring five or six players who will contribute equally to the team’s success.
“I think everyone is going to contribute the same offensively,” she said. “No one person is going to have to score all the points or grab all the rebounds. We’re pretty united this year, and I think we are going to be a much better team.”
Team defense will also be a factor in the Eagles’ success, and coach Norton has been very pleased with the early returns.
“We have been concentrating on defense almost exclusively over the first month of practice,” she said. “Intense pressure is going to be a big key for us, and by teaching the players to read and react better, we can create a lot more fast break opportunities.”
Davis, Flory and Hidle were unrelenting in Monday’s jamboree wins over Roosevelt (17-3), The Dalles (16-6) and Riverside (11-6), forcing a ton of turnovers and dominating the glass.
Everyone on the roster saw playing time, and Norton was happy with the overall effort.
“We applied better pressure in the first two games, but we were also experimenting with some different lineups,” she said. “It was a good warmup for us, but you never know until you play an actual game.”
HRV hoped to maintain its momentum in Tuesday’s season opener against former Mt. Hood Conference rival Barlow, before returning home for three straight games, starting with Clackamas on Dec. 9.
The league opener is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 9, at Redmond, followed by a Jan. 10 tilt against Bend High.
“We’re pretty stoked for this season,” Hedges said. “We have a lot of potential, and I’d like to think we have enough to get to the playoffs.”