Queens of the jungle

Members of the Lions basketball team celebrate with their coaches after clinching the Sky-Em league title last Friday in Junction City

(The original publication of this article in the Feb. 20 edition of The Sentinel contained incomplete information, stating that this was the Lions' first championship since the 2013-14 season. In 2018, Cottage Grove tied Junction City atop the regular season Sky-Em standings, ultimately losing a tiebreaker game with playoff seeding implications. This year's league title is the Lions' first outright Sky-Em league championship since the 2014 season.)

For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Cottage Grove Lions girls basketball team are outright Sky-Em league champions.

After Junction City upset Marist last Tuesday, leaving both teams with two league losses on the year, the Lions (18-5 overall, 9-0 league) took their undefeated league record north to take on the Tigers (12-11, 6-3), needing a win to claim the Sky-Em’s top spot.

And they did just that. On Friday, Feb. 14 Cottage Grove defeated Junction City for the second time this season, 37-24, to seal the league title and allow the team to breathe a small sigh of relief as they head towards playoffs.

“I knew it was going to be a tough game,” said head coach Steve Eastburn. “Realistically, having been in that position before. I knew playing on the road at Junction City, against a really good team fighting for second place, they would give us their best effort and they did.”

The second matchup between these two teams was much closer than the first. The Lions beat Junction City 56-27 at home on Jan. 28 and, based on the Tigers’ energy and effort in the first half, it was evident that their earlier win against the Spartans gave them some hope of an upset over league-favorite Cottage Grove.

“Kudos to those guys for coming out like that,” said Eastburn. “But I’m even more proud of our team because they withstood that adversity and they came out on top and that’s the expectations for these guys … They wanna win and they know they can win. That’s what makes it so fun.”

Fun, however, doesn’t mean easy and the game remained close for the first three quarters. Junior post Matty Ladd got into early foul trouble as the Tigers schemed to stop both her and fellow six-footer, sophomore Gracie Arnold. 

“Matty’s kind of unstoppable so they were trying, but we could still get it into her,” said junior point guard Mikaela Blomquist. “It’s just kind of a switch up from other teams we’ve played where it’s a little easier to get the ball into her. It was a different game than the last time we played them. They brought out their best effort this game for sure.”

Early foul troubles, a frustrating defensive scheme employed by Junction City and a slow scoring start spelled some frustration for a Lions team looking for their most important win of the season.

“I felt like nothing was working out for us,” said Blomquist after the game. “We were just stressed out and chaotic for no reason. I rewatched film and I could tell I was mad for no reason … but, it’s a hard place to play.”

A barrage of three-pointers by the Tigers kept them in the game in the second and third quarter — with Cottage Grove taking just a 28-22 lead into the final period — but ultimately it wasn’t enough to overcome the talent and size disparity that typically works in the Lions’ favor.

The Tigers’ efforts to slow Ladd and Arnold opened up opportunities for the Lions’ third imposing post player, Ema Gardner, and the senior finished with a game-high 14 points, along with four rebounds and two assists. Despite attempts to contain them - and Ladd playing only 19 minutes due to early fouls - Ladd and Arnold nonetheless combined for 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, five steals and five blocks.

On top of having standout individual performances, the Lions also dominated the team statistics, shooting 40 percent to Junction City’s 29, taking more shots at the free-throw line (15-6), turning the ball over less (14-20) and ultimately assisting on 11 of their 12 made baskets.

The last Lions team crowned Sky-Em champs finished the 2013-14 season 18-8 overall, 8-2 in league and finished ranked fourteenth. This year’s squad has improved upon all those numbers and now ranks seventh in the OSAA 4A rankings as they look to possibly match another feat that hasn’t been done since 2010: win a state title.

The team may just be ambitious enough to make it happen. Even after a league-clinching victory, the girls weren’t satisfied.

“It’s awesome to be league champs, but we all knew we didn’t play our best game,” said Blomquist.

The Lions now await  the conclusion of other 4A games to discover their opponent as hosts of  a Fri., Mar. 6 playoff game at Cottage Grove High School.

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