For the first time since their 2010 state championship run, the Cottage Grove Lions girls’ basketball team is headed back to the state quarterfinals.
On Friday, Mar. 6 the eighth-ranked Lions (19-6 overall, 9-1 league) took on visiting ninth-ranked Madras (15-9, 7-3) in the OSAA 4A round of 16, winning the matchup 60-43, despite a third quarter scare, and cementing their place in a Mar. 12 quarterfinal matchup with top-ranked Philomath (24-1, 12-0).
For the upperclassmen on the team, a return trip to the state championship for the first time in a decade was a longstanding goal. Though the path forward is a difficult one, there was a palpable excitement in the Cottage Grove gym after the girls made one of their primary goals a reality.
“It’s been our goal since freshman year,” said senior Megan Schatz. “We had many opportunities our sophomore and junior years, but now we have the team to do it and we’re actually going this time so it feels good.”
The Lions size advantage — centered around post players Matty Ladd, Gracie Arnold and Ema Gardner — was immediately apparent and their dominance in the post helped Cottage Grove jump out to a 27-17 halftime lead. After two quarters, it looked like the game was more or less in the bag.
The White Buffaloes, however, would not go out quietly and upped their full-court press defense after halftime, a strategy they employed all game.
Madras forced nine Lions’ turnovers in the third quarter alone and turned a 10-point deficit into a brief lead midway through the quarter.
“Tonight, that was a really good team, really scrappy,” said Lions’ head coach Steve Eastburn of their opponents. “They had us on our heels, but give credit to our girls. They fought back, they extended our lead and got some separation there at the end … so I was really proud of our kids.”
The Lions found their resilience before the final period started and worked their way back to a 39-35 lead heading into the fourth.
“We got together as a team and talked a lot about keeping our energy up and being strong with the ball and pushing past the adversity,” said Gardner of their third-quarter struggles. “I feel like we did a really good job.”
Over the final eight minutes of the game, Cottage Grove outscored Madras 21-8 and put to rest any questions of who was the better team.
Ladd, the 2020 Sky-Em Player of the Year, led the way with 19 points and 12 rebounds while fellow big Gracie Arnold contributed 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in a well-rounded effort.
The team statistics also bore out the Lions’ dominance. Cottage Grove won the rebounding battle 28-14, shot 63% from the field to Madras’ 33% and, perhaps most importantly, shot 18 of 24 from the free throw line, including 12 of 14 in the fourth quarter to seal the victory and reach the final rounds of the 2019-20 basketball season.
“Like the girls said, that’s been a goal of theirs and we let it slip away last year,” said Eastburn. “This year they fought really hard every day in practice. They just got after it and got better every single day and when we had a setback, they’d bounce back with a real positive effort.”
It’s difficult to predict what will happen the rest of the way, but the Lions’ proved their mettle in their first playoff matchup and, no matter what result their remaining games may have, junior point guard Mikaela Blomquist summed up the feelings of Lions’ players and fans after the game.
“I have one thing to say,” Blomquist yelled, “We’re going to state!”