There are a lot of skills a basketball player can get better at: shooting, rebounding, sprinting. The list goes on. But, as the old adage goes, you can’t teach height. You either have it, or you don’t.
And the Cottage Grove girls have it.
The Lions feature four girls on their team that are listed as 6 feet 1 or taller. This includes freshman Matty Ladd at 6 foot 1, sophomore Ema Gardner and senior Keara Murphy at 6 foot 2 and sophomore Reilly Kelty at 6 foot 3.
No matter who they play in the 4A classification, there is no one that can match the Lions for size. The Lions are quite literally head and shoulders above the competition. Teams are lucky to have one player who stands at least six feet tall and just six teams in this classification have two girls listed at being at least six feet tall. No team has three and the Lions are the only squad with four. The only other team in the state with four girls over 6 foot 1 is 6A’s Benson.
“(The other day) Sweet Home’s coach said, 'That’s really hard to guard.' I’m glad I’m on this side of it and not having to deal with the other side because I’m not sure how we would handle that,” said Cottage Grove head coach Kevin Yoss.
Height and basketball go hand-in-hand as is clear when looking at the best teams in the state. In the 6A classification, Southridge is ranked number one and have three girls on their team over six feet including Cameron Brink who is 6 foot 4. At the 5A level, second-ranked Marist, who will be joining the Lions in the Sky-Em league next season, features two players listed at 6 foot 1 and one player 6 foot 2.
To get to that next level of success, last year Yoss threw out the old playbook so he could make way for an offense that capitalizes on the team’s height.
“We instituted a post offense that takes in consideration three posts that we’re able to utilize,” said Yoss. “We started that early last year and have just been working on that since that time. Since we knew we were going to get another tall player this year so it’s worked out well.”
As the team has grown into its new identity, it has not been without some hurdles throughout the process. Earlier this season, despite their new system, the Lions struggled offensively and the onus was put on not the Cottage Grove bigs but on their guard play.
“They’re so focused on the one thing of getting the ball to the post that they forget that they can also dribble and relieve some pressure and then still get it to the post,” said Yoss after a Dec. 20 loss to Philomath.
Being able to get the ball inside became the focus of everything the Lions did. Both in games and at practice; the importance was turned up. In practice, when bad passes were made during their scrimmages Yoss noted that the players then faced “consequences.” It was not making the individual run more but having their team have to play 4-on-5 to show just how costly it is to the team.
“We’ve been working a lot on post entries, our guards have, and so if I’m standing there and I’m open and I have both hands up and like I’m ready for it, I can work my way around the girls,” said the 6 foot 3 Kelty.
As the ability to get the ball where it needs to be has gotten better, so too has the Lions defense. Playing weaker opponents than earlier in the season, Cottage Grove has been able to force their will on the defensive end. During a four-game stretch during league-play the Lions blocked an eye-popping 20% of their opponent’s shots.
While the Lions are tall, there is not a consensus on what phase of the game the team best utilizes their heights.
Yoss sees it on the defensive end which has led to transition points. Kelty sees it in their ability to score from down low. Ladd sees it as the offense’s ability to adapt to different situations. Gardner believes it is in how they can see over defenders and make the right passes. Murphy says it is the ability to crowd the lane on defense.
Regardless of who is right, what’s clear is that in all phases of the game the Lions can present a problem to any team that they face. While the Lions struggled early in the season, as things are going right for them now, there is no team that would look forward to playing this multi-faceted squad.
“Coaches, after we give high-fives after the game, they always talk about how tall our girls are. Like they always, even if they’re like technically a better team than us ranked or whatever, they’re always like, we dread playing you,” said Lions guard Sam May. “We don’t want to play. Because no one wants to play against six-footers that can swat you every time you drive in.”