After a busy weekend to wrap up their holiday break from school, the potential of the Cottage Grove girls basketball team is shining as brightly as it has all season.
The Lions (7-4, OSAA #10) took a three-day trip to Stayton High School for the Stayton Invitational Tournament from Thurs., January 2 to Sat., January 4. In three games of action, the girls went 2-1 with an impressive overtime victory over ninth-ranked Valley Catholic (6-4) and their sole loss coming in the championship game against a 5A Ridgeview (8-5) team, also ranked ninth in their classification.
“The kids played really well. They stepped up to the challenge up there,” head coach Steve Eastburn said at the Lions’ Monday morning practice. On top of a competitive slate of opponents, adding to the challenge was the fact that the team hadn’t seen the court for a counting game since Dec. 21. With the players in the comfortable lull of winter break, some rust needed shaking off.
“We hadn’t practiced for two days before we played Seaside,” Eastburn added. “So the first game was kinda getting our feet wet again, but then the next night against Valley Catholic, the kids did some things that they had not done all season.
After a somewhat sluggish 33-26 win over Seaside (4-6) in the Thursday game, the girls roared to life on Friday against the Valiants. Despite missing their starting post and point guard (juniors Matty Ladd and Mikaela Blomquist, respectively), the rest of the squad rose to the occasion, defeating Valley Catholic 59-55 in overtime.
“They stepped up and showed some real resiliency,” Eastburn said. “They played tough. They were aggressive. We took the game to Valley Catholic and [Megan Schatz] had the best game of her career.”
One of only two seniors on the team, Schatz took over the game in more ways than one. Missing the scoring punch and rebounding of Ladd as well as the playmaking of Blomquist, Schatz played a part in filling in both roles, finishing the victory with 26 points on 8-17 shooting — along with four 3-pointers — 13 rebounds, five assists and, crucially, only one turnover. Schatz, however, was hesitant to heap praise on herself, choosing instead to focus on the team’s performance.
“It was actually a really fun weekend,” Schatz said. “Coming into that second game, I could feel as a team we were kind of unprepared for it, but as soon as we realized that we could play with them, we played with them and we just rocked it.”
In Friday’s win the Lions were also buoyed by standout performances from senior Ema Gardner (12 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and one block) and sophomore Gracie Arnold (13 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and three steals) who made a corner three to tie the game in the closing moments of regulation to send the game to the extra period. As a team, Cottage Grove outrebounded the Valiants by a whopping 47-26, including a 21-2 advantage on the offensive glass. The Lions only shot 33% from the field, but ultimately the gawdy rebounding advantage and three-point shooting — particularly from Schatz — were enough to steal a close win.
“In that overtime, we just showed them we can win and we won,” Schatz said.
The Lions’ run, however, ran its course in the championship where they eventually succumbed to Ridgeview 45-37. The two teams were even in the rebounding category, the Lions even out-shot the Ravens at the free throw line, but shooting 32% from the field while also committing 22 turnovers rarely results in a win.
“We kinda let those guys being 5A affect us in the first half,” Eastburn said. “Because we beat them soundly in the second half and we can really play with that team, to be honest with you.”
Schatz followed up her stat-stuffing performance against Valley Catholic with nine points, five rebounds and two assists while Arnold added 11 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and three blocked shots.
Had Ladd and Blomquist been in their normal starting spots, the Lions may have indeed come home with the tournament trophy, but both players should be back playing this week and all arrows are pointing up for this squad.
Talent was never really a question for the 2019-20 Lions, but for a team that occasionally struggled earlier in the season in tense moments, this taste of tournament success could fuel the team into the most important stretch of the season.
“We’re excited,” Eastburn said. “We realize we have an opportunity so we wanna seize it and we wanna take it as far as we can.”
Cottage Grove — currently the highest-ranked of the Sky-Em teams — travels to Phoenix High School on Fri., Jan. 10 for the Sky-Em/Skyline Crossover. Their first two opponents are to be determined, but they will play second-ranked Hidden Valley (10-2) on Sat. at 2 p.m.