LEAVENWORTH — After winning its first 10 games of the season, the Okanogan girls basketball team suffered three straight defeats during the last two weeks to three of the Caribou Trail League’s top teams — Brewster, Cashmere and Chelan. It’s not totally surprising that the Bulldogs dropped all three, but the fact that the Bulldogs didn’t even make their games against Cashmere and the Goats competitive — they lost those contests by a combined 32 points — definitely grabbed head coach Bryan Boesel’s attention.
Quite simply, Okanogan, the defending 1A state champions, wasn’t playing the kind of basketball that it played at the end of last year to win the title and at the start of this season.
“In the last three games, we started off really hot — on both ends of the floor, we were clicking,” Boesel said. “But in the last two games, especially, (the other team) made a run, and we gave up a bit. When our offense wasn’t working, we didn’t play hard on defense.”
The Bulldogs’ offense wasn’t working during some crucial moments of their Friday contest against an improved Cascade squad. However, they once again found a way to get the defensive stops that they needed late in the fourth quarter to pull out a gutty 51-47 victory to snap their losing streak.
It was the kind of victory that Boesel had been waiting for.
“We played hard on both ends of the floor,” he said. “The turning point came when we got down in the second half, and I thought we might give up, like we had been doing. But we sucked it up and got it done. We played with our hearts and never gave up on defense. That’s the part that I like to see. I saw a twinkle in their eyes that had been missing.”
Six of Okanogan’s players participated in last year’s state title game win over Freeman, so the Bulldogs are a group that’s not used to losing.
However, Boesel said the team’s losing streak actually served as a calming influence that in some ways helped it on Friday.
“(The streak) didn’t fire them up, but we were more relaxed,” he said. “The pressure was off us because we’d lost three in a row. When you relax, you’re able to just play, and when you do that you don’t make mistakes.
“When you’re the defending state champs, you know that everyone is going to bring their ‘A’ game every night. But we felt like we were the underdogs because we had lost three in a row. We felt like we had to prove that we’re a good team all over again. That’s why this win tonight was a big one for us.”
Okanogan (11-3, 5-3) took a 25-19 lead into halftime, but the Kodiaks, who shot just 22 percent in the first half, began to hit some shots and tightened up on defense to get back into the game in the third quarter. Cascade led by as many as five points in the fourth quarter, but after the Kodiaks took a 45-42 lead with three minutes, 20 seconds remaining, they were outscored 9-2, as Kara Staggs (game-high 18 points) scored seven points, five on free throws, to help seal the Bulldogs’ win.
“We kept being aggressive, made the right passes and minimized our mistakes (in the fourth quarter),” said Okanogan post Caitlyn Behymer, who posted 12 points, four rebounds and eight blocks. “We had a long week of practice. We got pumped up, and we knew that we had nothing to lose and that we had to keep working hard. Everyone has rough patches, ups and downs. Our ‘down’ was longer than we wanted, but we got back up tonight.”
The Bulldogs’ roster features an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Staggs, Behymer and Megan Parks make up the team’s veteran core, but half of Boesel’s rotation is freshmen and sophomores.
“That’s where some of our ‘downs’ came from — they happened because we weren’t fully used to playing with each other,” Behymer said. “But now we know (how to play with each other), and we’re working with what we know. (We’re motivated by) the feeling (of winning the state title), remembering what it was like. We all want to feel that way again. We’re working hard and playing for each other. The second time around is always going to be tougher, but we know what we have to do. We know we can do it.”
The Kodiaks, meanwhile, are desperately trying to establish their credentials as a top-tier team in a loaded CTL. They’ve clearly improved from last season, when they struggled with most of the things that a young, relatively experienced team can struggle with.
But it seems as though most of Cascade’s rotation players have improved in small increments during the past year, and as a result the Kodiaks (10-3, 4-3) seem far more assured of their skills and ability to win games on a consistent basis.
“I thought we were athletic a year ago. This year, the kids are believing in themselves, working hard and doing what we’re asking,” coach Todd Fraker said. “We’ve talked about how the best teams in this league all have a Division-I or Division-II athlete on the court. We have a collection of athletic girls, but we don’t have a superstar. It’s been a total team effort. I hope that (almost beating Okanogan) will be a step for us to get to the next level and be competitive with these teams.”
Kaycee O’Brien has developed into a long-range shooting threat for Cascade (the sophomore hit four 3-pointers on her way to a team-high 16 points) and Sydney Coffin, the team’s leading scorer, has emerged as a consistent double-double threat (she had 10 points and 10 rebounds).
But Friday’s contest showed Fraker what his team still needs to work on.
“We still have to learn how to play in situations like that (late in the fourth quarter),” he said. “(Okanogan) is probably more accustomed to doing that. This was a great learning experience for us. Obviously this would’ve been a big benefit for us if we would’ve won, but we feel that we are going to be in the mix. We want to compete with the best teams in this league, and I think we’re moving in the right direction. Okanogan beat us by 20 the first time we played. Tonight we stepped up.”
Okanogan boys 66, Cascade 52
Okanogan point guard Justin Rivas certainly had a good 2011-12 campaign; he earned all-league honors, after all. However, he was the Bulldogs’ second offensive option behind 1,000-point scorer Jim Townsend.
Entering this season, Rivas knew that with Townsend graduated that he’d be called upon to become the Bulldogs’ top scoring option. So far, he’s proven that he’s definitely up for the challenge.
Rivas tallied 28 points to lead Okanogan to a victory over host Cascade on Friday. The Bulldogs (13-1, 7-1) are a full game ahead of second-place Chelan atop the CTL.
One of the quickest players in the league, Rivas, who entered Friday’s contest with a 17.7 points-per-game average, has the ability to get up and down the court for transition opportunities, sees the court well, and he’s an excellent defensive player; several of his seven steals came at crucial points late in Friday’s contest to help the Bulldogs stave off a furious second-half Kodiaks rally.
“He’s a lot better player (than last year),” Okanogan coach Mike Carlquist said. “He’s grown up. He’s matured a lot. He’s a very good player.”
Cascade, playing for new head coach Micah Rieke, lost its first seven games of the season and eight of its first 12; the Kodiaks had to adjust to Rieke’s new systems, and returned just one player with significant varsity experience (post Santos Lopez).
But it appears as though Cascade (4-9, 2-5) is slowly but surely starting to develop; the Kodiaks beat Tonasket and Omak to conclude the first round of league play and showed that it’s capable of playing with the league’s top team Friday.
“We’re definitely executing better, and the guys are starting to believe,” Rieke said. “We have had great leadership. The seniors have really brought the team together and helped with the transition. It’s evident that we’re starting to gel.”
In Lopez (14 points, seven rebounds Friday) and guard Tristin Parton (21 points, 5-for-13 from 3-point range), Rieke has the foundation of a potentially potent inside-outside game.
“Santos has gotten a lot better,” Rieke said. “He’s squaring up the basket and showing a lot of poise. Tristin is shooting the ball with a lot of confidence right now. You’d never know that he’s a first-year varsity player.
“We’re hoping that we can surprise some people in this league. We’re just thinking, ‘top six, top six’ to get into the playoffs, and at that point anything can happen.”
In other Friday action:
Waterville girls 66, Thorp 15
Waterville pulled out to a 29-3 lead at the end of the first quarter and never looked back. Mason Peterson scored a game-high 14 points in the win as Waterville improved to 8-3 for the season.
Entiat girls 66, Soap Lake 41
Deseree Parks of Entiat had 22 points, five assists and five steals in the Tigers’ home win.
Entiat called an early timeout after falling behind 7-0, then came alive to take a 15-11 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Soap Lake boys 56, Entiat 41
Entiat suffered from low shooting percentages throughout its home loss to Soap Lake.
Soap Lake went 10 for 13 from the free-throw line, including eight in the fourth quarter. Entiat was just 2 for 3 from the line.