Ellie Croco’s senior season did not start or finish the way she would have liked.
The Lebanon High standout was the Mid-Willamette Conference Player of the Year as a junior and led the Warriors to their first ever outright league title during the regular season.
But shortly after last season ended, Croco suffered a serious knee injury which required surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation. As play began last fall, Croco’s status was uncertain.
In addition, she and fellow senior Mary Workman were the top two returners from a squad that lost four key players from its rotation to graduation. Returning to the 5A state tournament would require finding chemistry with a talented, but unproven, group of younger players.
Despite these difficulties, the Warriors had an outstanding year, going 13-3 in Mid-Willamette Conference play to finish second in league behind Silverton (15-1). Lebanon then won its 5A first-round playoff game, 55-27, over visiting Pendleton.
At the 5A state tournament, Lebanon lost its opener to third-seeded Wilsonville 49-29, but bounced back to defeat Corvallis 49-33 in the consolation round.
That put the Warriors in position to play for fourth place against Churchill. Win or lose, the squad had advanced further than the year before when Lebanon lost both of its games at the state tournament.
With a win in that game, Lebanon would also have surpassed its performance in the 2014 state tournament when the team placed fifth. But before the game could be played, the rapidly growing concern over the spread of COVID-19 led state athletics officials to suspend play in the tournament. The Warriors would not get to play for fourth place.
“The biggest impact, I think, is just that closure at the end,” Lebanon coach Mardy Benedict said. “When you know it’s your last game, win or lose, you get that closure with the team and can celebrate the season and the journey. That is what’s lost here.”
Croco said team was not surprised when the decision was announced that play had been suspended. The players were aware of changing circumstances, including postponements and cancellations by other leagues.
“It was really hard,” Croco said. “When they first told us, we had heard beforehand stuff was going on. The day before that we found out the NBA shut down. It was a really weird feeling. We were sad about it, but we feel this is the right thing to do. I just hope the girls next year will be able to make it back and do it again.”
For a brief period of time the team though the remainder of the tournament would be played at Gill Coliseum without fans.
“That’s what we first originally thought,” Workman said. “But then we saw everything just closing down and we figured that might happen to us as well.”
After having time to reflect, both Croco and Workman are able to look back at the season with a sense of accomplishment while acknowledging that the ending fell short of their hopes
“Last year, we really didn’t end up where we wanted to be. We really wanted to do better this year and give it our all. We were so excited to play that third day and be able to get that trophy that we wanted so bad. It was kind of disappointing to not get to do that in the end,” Workman said.
“Being able to come from last year, when we lost both games at the state tournament, just coming out with a win was a great thing for our program,” Croco said. “It just was a great feeling and I’m super-proud of our team. I thought everyone stepped up. I thought the freshmen played amazing for their first time being there. … It was really cool seeing that.”
Workman had an outstanding season and set the school record for 3-pointers made in a game with nine against Crescent Valley on Jan. 28. Her steady play at point guard gave the team room to grow as younger players found their roles.
“We had a really young team this year and I felt a lot of the weight during the beginning of the season on me. I kind of tried to do everything myself. But as I started getting confidence in my teammates and seeing them learn and grow throughout the season, during the last games I had complete confidence in every single one of them. Just seeing what we were able to do was really cool,” Workman said. “You really can’t put into words what it feels like.”
Workman plans to attend college and wants to play at the next level. One possibility is Eastern Arizona, a national junior college. She has been in touch with the coaching staff at the school, which is located in Thatcher, near the New Mexico border.
“It’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Workman said with a laugh.
But the opportunity to continue playing is worth the move to the desert.
“That’s what I realized this year. I really found my passion for the game and it seemed like it all went by so fast. I just want to keep playing as long as I can,” Workman said.
Croco already knew her playing career would continue. Last fall, she signed a scholarship offer from St. Mary’s, a West Coast Conference school in Moraga, Calif. Her goal now is to fully regain the explosiveness and mobility she had before the knee surgery.
She played her senior level while continuing her rehabilitation and had to accept that the recovery process was still incomplete. She estimated that by the end of the season she was at about 70%. Part of the limitation was physical and part of it was mental as she had to learn to trust her knee and get used to playing with a bulky brace.
“I was just happy to be able to play, honestly. For a long time there I wasn’t even sure if I could get back in time to play any of the season,” Croco said. “With this whole thing that has happened too, it just makes you play every single game like it’s your last one because it can be your last one.”
Jarrid Denney of the Corvallis Gazette-Times contributed to this story.
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