For South Salem, the 2018-19 girls basketball season ended in a similar way if a college team were playing UConn….a thumping. Getting rolled by Beaverton led to a second round exit for the Lady Saxons, who struggled to overcome the challenge of facing a much larger task. Nonetheless, the hungry Lady Saxons entered 2020 with one goal in mind: State Championship or bust. It started slow with losses to South Eugene and Canby, but they pulled it together to go undefeated in Mountain Valley Conference play and go all the way to the state semifinals, defeating defending state champion Benson along the way. With their season cut short due to COVID-19, several Lady Saxons and Head Coach Adrian Lewis talked with Elite Oregon Girls about the 2020 season, reflecting on their massive success that was ultimately ended without their consent or control….
The Transition To 2020
You girls are a year removed from a trip to the state tournament ending with a thumping from Beaverton. Last season, y’all dominated the conference and played well, but still couldn’t overcome the bigger fish. After last season’s playoff loss, what was the mindset the team took with them from then until the beginning of this season?
Delaney Keith: “We knew coming into this season that we were going to be the team to beat. We knew that we had a good last season, but we had to step it up. We had to face the Beaverton’s, Bensons, and Sheldon’s if we wanted to get to our ultimate goal, Chiles Center.”
Victoria Stafford: “We worked really hard in the offseason, whether that was doing summer workouts or a lot of skill work, with the goal of the girls becoming more versatile players.”
Hilary James: “I think that that game was a huge learning experience for us. Beaverton obviously is a great team and they were a tough pull last year but after that game we knew how hard we had to work in the off season in order to make it to Chiles. As a unit, I think we just became better all around as a team this year and though the beginning started off rocky, as time went on we continued to persevere and these last few weeks our team chemistry has been the best that it ever has been which made us play at another level together.”
Coach Lewis: “After last season ended with Beaverton, our girls were determined to make it to Chiles Center. Of course everyone was sad but there was determined faces and promises to each other to improve. Only losing one player, the girls knew they had everything to make a run if they stayed together. It was awesome to see them gel together over the summer and this season. It started with the Seniors, they showed up to summer workouts and others followed.”
A Slow Start To 2020
Coming into the year, y’all were the consensus #1 team in the conference and one of the best in the state. It started bumpy with losses to South Eugene and Canby, but y’all firmly turned it around and only lost one more game afterwards. What clicked after the 1-2 start that really mended the girls together on the court?
Hilary James: “Like I said it wasn’t the start we wanted. I don’t know if I can pin point the cause of the adversity we faced but it was definitely there. We knew that we needed to step it up big in practice as far as effort and I think when we implemented that, it increased drive to both improve and reach our goal that was able to translate into the games. We became more united and we wanted to challenge each other in practice in order to make each other better.”
Coach Lewis: “As a coach, I knew we were going to get everyone’s A game. The previous year we weren’t thought of as a contender or the team to beat in our conference. This year everyone knew who we were and wanted to beat us. I would say we started a little big headed. We knew the talent we had and might of thought all we have to do is show up. Those early losses really woke us up and got us playing some great basketball. They knew they had to work hard and when the girls did, we showed everyone we were a team to fear.”
Victoria Stafford: “We had the goal in the beginning of the season to make it to the Chiles Center, so starting off with those two losses really motivated us to work harder in practice. We knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”
Delaney Keith: “We knew that we were better then how we were playing. We just had to show it. We picked up our defense and our offense came around also, so it started to click after that.”
The Lady Saxon Culture
This is a tight knit group, y’all are always hanging out together or out doing something as a team. Give me a sense of the culture of this team, what makes it so special? Who are the biggest characters on the team?
Victoria Stafford: “This team has a great bond, a lot of us have been playing together since we were little so it really helps with the culture. We always try to make time to hang out off the court, and Coach Lewis always has us doing team bonding every once in a while. That’s why I think we work so well together: We know each other not only just on the court, but also off the court as well.”
Coach Lewis: “We really try to preach the family atmosphere. After every practice or game we break to “family”. As a program, I require all the girls to know each others name regardless if they are on JV2 or Varsity. We make girls run for attendance in the classroom. So if girls don’t go to class the program runs. Helps everyone hold each other accountable. But it really comes from our senior leadership. Girls like Victoria, Gretchen and Ellyson all played a huge role. Victoria is the vocal leader, Gretchen leads by example and Ellyson helps with the emotional side of this for the girls. Also, I decided to teach the captains how to be leaders. We read a book to help them understand what they need to do and how to do it. We had other girls like Tiani and Quincy who were great teammates and so positive for the team. The glue to the team which we needed.”
Delaney Keith: “We definitely have a unique team. We have all types of different personalities. But we (most of the time) all get a long and have a great time together. I’d say the biggest characters are Mimi Bolden and Halley Barram. They are polar opposites but always know how to lighten up the mood and keep everyone smiling and laughing. On the court it’s not much different. We have fun with each other and get excited when we see our teammates succeed. We seem to know where each other are on the court. At practice we’re always looking for each other, and doing different things.”
Hilary James: “We’re one big crazy family for sure. We’ve had our issues, but we love doing fun activities together and just hanging out, which is pretty special. Some are closer than others, but especially this year, both me personally and others have grown relationships with people they may not have been as close to which is pretty cool. Our seniors have been a huge part of that, encouraging us to get to know each other off the court as well as on the court, and they have done just an amazing job at leading by example.”
Which Threat Do You Want?
Y’all are a unique team on several levels, with one of those being how many threats there are. Whether its Hilary, Delaney, Zoey, or whoever, there is always something to guard on this team. How does this team use each other so effectively? What type of activities do y’all do whether in free time or practice that helps y’all with team chemistry?
Hilary James: “I think that was a huge part of our success this season (because we have so many girls that can play). All of us are different and have different strengths, but we are all very versatile and able to recognize when someone is hitting and when to get them the ball. We just know each other super well, both strengths and weaknesses and I think that works for our benefit.”
Victoria Stafford: “It’s super awesome having multiple threats on the team, it makes it hard for teams to stop us. Teams have to choose whether they want to pack the paint and stop our post, or if they want to play out and stop our shooters. Either way, teams have to pick their poison when it comes to playing us.”
Coach Lewis: “This team is crazy talented. Obviously there is Hilary who is one of the best, if not the best, in state. We have shooters in Gretchen and Delaney that can space the floor. Also, there is Victoria that we can throw it down to get points. Zoe is probably the best defenders in the state. She can guard 1-5. Her block highlight is unreal. We also have Mimi Bolden who is crazy talented. She can create for others and play great defense. We do a lot of shooting drills and transition offense drills. We work on spacing a lot. That is one of our biggest things is spacing. We teach lanes of the floor. Run to our lanes and stay wide and ready to shoot. All about getting them confident. We have a team dinner every Thursday at a players house, its a great way to get the girls together outside of the court. Also, we do several team bonding activities throughout the year so that helps.”
Making A Dream Come True
This season, y’all had a perfect conference record and #6 seed in the state tournament. After torching David Douglas, y’all faced defending state champion Benson to punch a ticket to PDX. Y’all not only knocked them off, but you did it at home in convincing fashion. What was the talk entering that game and how meaningful was it to punch your ticket to the Chiles Center at home against the defending state champion?
Delaney Keith: “We knew they had players. We had a specific game plan going into that game. Most importantly, we had to be there mentally. We had the plan and the ability, we just had to believe that we could win. We knew it was important to get to Chiles Center. It was our goal as a team, and Benson was the only team standing in our way. We had to keep our mindset and stick to the plan. If we did that, we were as good as set.”
Hilary James: “The Benson game was awesome, my favorite game of the season for sure. We were pumped going in, but we weren’t overly confident because we knew how well and hard they play but we knew that we were prepared and if we went out and executed we would win. Every single person on our team gave it their all in that game, even those who didn’t get to play were screaming and encouraging us and they gave us everything. I fought so hard that game and so when that buzzer went off it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. We had made it. I was speechless, I was grateful, and I loved every second of it.”
Coach Lewis: “As a coach, Benson was one of the biggest games for me. This was the moment the girls and I wanted all season. We prepared ourselves for that moment and they responded. They played confident and care free. Benson was a tough team. They are well coached and always played hard. But we knew how good we are. We were just confident. They girls executed our defensive strategy well and offensively we kept going at them. After the game it was just pure joy, I couldn’t fall asleep after the game. Personally, I felt validated as a coach. Everyone told me not to take the job because all the talent was gone. I looked at it as an opportunity, I get to create my own culture and build from the ground up. First year went 12-12 and I felt a lot of doubt from people. Last year we won league but lost pretty badly to Beaverton. Now my third year we roll through league and make it to Chiles. I couldn’t have imagined that when I took the job. I believe I could but thought it might take a little longer. I am fortunate to be surrounded by great coaching staff and players.”
Victoria Stafford: “Walking into the Benson game, we kept telling each other that we were in that position for a reason, and that we were completely good enough and capable of beating them. Yes there were some nerves, but as soon as that ref threw the tip in the air, all the nerves went away and we just played our game.”
The Dream That Was Cut Way Too Short
In the quarterfinals, McMinnville fought y’all until y’all just caught fire in the final frame and blew them out of the water. Knowing you were supposed to play in the semi’s, does it feel empty knowing that y’all could’ve been holding a trophy on Saturday? How has the team been handling the situation?
Coach Lewis: “McMinnville gave us a run for our money. As the coach, I just kept telling them to keep fighting. I knew all we needed is one of our runs we usually make. In all of our games we go on a 4-5 minute run where we just overwhelm teams. Lucky for us it happened in the fourth. Again the girls were so excited. Especially when Vic went down, they seemed to come together even more. It was great to see. Telling the girls that the tournament was cancelled was one of the hardest things I ever had to do as a coach. The disappointment was heartbreaking. We knew we were legit contenders this year. 19 game winning streak and we were shooting the ball extremely well. In our 3 playoff games we shot over 55% from 3s. I think it was great we did stuff as a team that day. We went to the zoo and went out to eat. Just spent the whole day together to get our mind off things.”
Victoria Stafford: “It definitely feels empty knowing we should’ve been bringing home the trophy, we weren’t expecting that to be our last game. For me, it was especially hard because I had just went down with an injury, and I never had a chance to play another game, and that’s how my high school career ended. It’s definitely been hard on all of us because we put in so much work to get into that Final Four position, and then it all got taken away from us. Some of the girls are still in shock, we’re feel like this is all a bad dream and are just waiting/hoping to wake up from it.”
Hilary James: “It has definitely been tough knowing that we would have been in the semis and had a chance to battle for a state championship, but I have become more and more thankful as the days go by. Seeing how serious this situation is and how it has already affected so many people, I am realizing this is more important. I love basketball more than most, but people are more important and i am just so grateful for the season and my teammates who have stuck by me every step of the way.”
Delaney Keith: “It was tough to swallow. Knowing that we worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get there, and to not even get the chance… its heartbreaking. The team, it’s been hard. The seniors taking it the hardest. We are getting through it. Slowly, but surely. It will get better.”
Reflecting On and Taking Away From What Was and What Could’ve Been…
Finally, despite the widespread disappointment, y’all still had an extremely successful season. What are your biggest takeaways from this season, the cancellation, and all of the accomplishments y’all achieved together as a team?
Delaney Keith: “Our biggest takeaways were how far our defense has come. Our offense is always there, but our defense helped us win games. From the cancellation, it’s to never take opportunities for granted, or moments for granted. Never know how important those times are or could be, until they’re gone. We have achieved so much this season. Going undefeated in conference, going to Chiles Center, getting a win at Chiles Center. It may not have ended the way we wanted, but it doesn’t shadow or demean anything we have accomplished this season as a team.”
Hilary James: “We did have an amazing season, one that I will forever cherish. The memories we made and struggles we overcame taught me so much and my team is truly a family. I’m already missing practices and games, but mostly just being with my teammates because they are my best friends. My heart hurts the most for my seniors who don’t have another shot, but I know they are gonna go out and do great things in the world and they will never stop being apart of my squad. Luckily for me and the rest of the underclassmen, we have another chance next season, which I will be anxiously awaiting for. It’s back to work for me and I know we are gonna have vital pieces next year to make another run.”
Coach Lewis: “Biggest thing is that we showed the state we could play against anyone. As a coach, I was proud how tight this group was. It wasn’t pretty all season, but the last half of the season was one of the most tight knit group I have been a part of. Communication was excellent. All year we preached defense. Offense was never an issue, but defensively if everyone could do their part, we would be unstoppable. Also, as a coach they were student athletes, our team GPA was 3.6 between our 14 girls. Cancellation was tough but that won’t define this team. The memories and accomplishments we had will last a lifetime. Also, the four seniors were part of the 3rd place run their freshmen year and to see them make it to the Final Four was a great send off for them.”
Victoria Stafford: “I think the biggest takeaway from all of this is to play every game like it’s your last, and never take anything for granted, because you never know when it will be your last. Who could’ve know that a virus would cancel some of the biggest games of our careers? In the end, my team accomplished so much! We set our goals in the beginning, and we accomplished all of them…that’s all I could really ask for! I’m going to really miss playing with this team, but I am truly blessed to say I was part of this Saxon program. Like they say…Once A Saxon, Always A Saxon!”