A trio of nine-win teams sit atop the standings entering the Mid-Willamette Conference girls basketball season.
No. 1 Central (9-1), No. 5 Lebanon (9-0) and ninth-ranked Crescent Valley (9-1) will all be in action Tuesday night as conference play kicks off. The Warriors are set to host Central while CV travels to No. 8 Silverton (7-3), last year’s 5A state runner-up.
Tuesday’s MWC openers will also feature South Albany (4-6) at Woodburn (1-8) and Corvallis (3-7) — the league’s reigning champion — at Dallas (6-3).
“I think the top of our conference includes some of the best teams in the state,” first-year CV coach Eric Gower said. “But I don’t think there are any teams we can overlook. We have to be ready to battle every game, and I do think our team can play with everyone.”
Lebanon, which dropped six of its final seven games last winter to miss the state playoffs, is 5A’s lone unbeaten team. Only Central, CV and No. 3 Springfield (10-1) have one loss.
The Warriors boast wins over No. 10 Bend (50-36), No. 13 Churchill (60-47) and Grants Pass (44-37), the 14th-ranked team in 6A.
“We had a great summer together and it’s a great group of girls that really love being around each other and are committed to each other on an off the court,” Lebanon coach Mardy Benedict said. “That’s been what’s carried us though injuries and poor shooting nights and other stuff like that. Our girls continue to keep competing through whatever adversity has come.”
CV boasts the MWC’s top scoring offense 61.2 points per game while giving up just 39.
Gower believes defensive intensity has been the biggest factor in the Raiders’ strong start.
“Coming out and playing defense every night has allowed us to stay in games when we maybe weren’t shooting well,” Gower said. “Consistently playing defense for four quarters has really helped us.”
A 58-46 home loss to Churchill in mid-December is the Raiders’ lone blemish.
Central, which defeated 6A West Albany 72-58 last week, dropped a 35-27 decision at 4A Stayton on Dec. 25. The Panthers came right back with a 47-40 road win at Churchill.
Lebanon has played just once in the last three weeks, a 40-35 victory at Thurston on Dec. 29.
“The nice thing for our girls is there has been no letdown,” Benedict said. “Our second group is beating our first group in practice. They’ve just been battling each other, so maybe we are hungry to play someone else.”
Top-ranked Silverton is the team to beat as MWC play begins Tuesday night.
The Foxes (8-1) will hit the road to face No. 11 Crescent Valley (5-5), the conference’s defending champion. Tuesday’s other matchups include Lebanon (1-9) at No. 6 Central (8-2), Dallas (1-8) at No. 12 Corvallis (4-6) and Woodburn (4-6) at No. 16 South Albany (7-3).
“Silverton is the favorite and I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” Rebels coach Justin Smith said. “But just like everyone else, they are beatable.”
Silverton lost just one player — 6-foot-4 post Elijah Nielsen — from a squad that qualified for the 5A state round of 16 and suffered a tight 62-52 loss to Churchill, the eventual state runner-up. The Foxes avenged the defeat last Tuesday with a 57-55 win in Eugene.
The Lancers (9-2) are ranked third in 5A and have wins over Corvallis (58-55), CV (69-52), Dallas (65-40) and Lebanon (69-38).
“Silverton is basically bringing everyone back but they have also played some close games,” Spartans coach Ross Duerfeldt said. “Everyone is beatable; no one is untouchable in this league.”
Outside of Silverton, South Albany has the most returning experience in the conference.
Senior wing Jake Costello was a first-team all-MWC pick a season ago while teammate Jaden Guilford, a senior point guard, was a second-team selection.
Smith said the Rebels, who made the state quarterfinals last March for the first time in program history, simply played poorly in losses to No. 9 Crater (78-55) and North Eugene (60-59). South’s 59-47 defeat to second-ranked Thurston was a different story.
“We were up five at halftime and went 2 for 18 from the floor in the second half,” Smith said. “Thurston is one of the best teams in the state and we felt like that was a good measuring stick for us. We think we can compete with anybody.”
CV, which has won three straight entering league play, returns MWC player of the year Tariq Harris. The 6-foot-5 Harris is a senior wing.
The Raiders do not have the services of Talanoa Hufanga, a three-year starter who signed with USC for football last month.
Senior point guard Dyshawn Hobson is the lone returning varsity player for the up-and-down Spartans. CHS is coming off a disappointing 74-59 loss to Willamette after giving Churchill everything it could handle.
“We are making progress,” Duerfeldt said. “The big thing for us is finding that consistency and putting out the best effort possible every single day. When we do that, we have shown to ourselves that we can be pretty formidable.”