Salem — The 2021 Crusader Classic at the Salem Academy has proven to be quite the treat this time around. After a year off, a loaded slate of teams including 3A #2 Nyssa, 2A #1 Gervais, 3A #1 Sutherlin, and 1A #1 Country Christian bring some flavor to a season full of uncertainty in the 3A, 2A, and 1A classes. With a tournament like this, there are bound to be some teams that crack under the pressure and others who thrive in it. The Crusader Classic has been no exception, as Saturday provided plenty of surprises and pleasant reminders that anything is possible in high school sports.
Country Christian and Gervais emerged as the two best teams in the tournament, with both proving themselves to be fairly successful and in control of the game. Country Christian opened with 3A Yamhill-Carlton, rolling to a 56-39 victory on Thursday, while Gervais went up four classes to beat 6A North Medford 49-32. On Friday, Country Christian was paired with 3A #8 Amity, a team that was riding a five-game winning streak entering the day since they were blown out by Faith Bible 60-30 at home. The Warriors were no match for 1A’s top squad, as their inside-out middles proved to be too difficult to overcome as Country Christian owned the paint and glass in the game. Amity struggled to find rhythm, while Country Christian was in the zone from the get-go and ended up cruising 57-38 to advance to the Black Bracket Championship against the winner of Gervais-Sutherlin, a game pairing of 2A and 3A #1 teams.
The best pairing on Saturday came with Gervais and Sutherlin, the top teams in their respective classes entering the new year. This one was what we would call a slobber knocker, a low scoring, scrappy affair that would come down to who made the fewest mistakes. Sutherlin and Gervais both applied pressure defenses, forcing their offenses into tough situations that resulted in bad shot selection and contended possessions. The teams fought back and forth in the first half, with Gervais finding some room in the paint to take the lead entering the half on Sutherlin. The Bulldogs responded with a hot start to the second half, but Gervais matched them by stiffing them in the middle and forcing them to shoot from deeper ranges. The Cougars also dominated the glass with Olivia Boyd and Josie Shultz, presenting more pressure on Sutherlin to obtain boards and ultimately more possessions to win the game. With some down the stretch clutch free throws by Sofia Contreras, the Cougars fended off a late Sutherlin rally to advance to the Black Bracket Championship against Country Christian to open 2022.
In the game that came in-between, 3A #2 Nyssa squared off with 2A Central Linn, with the Lady Cobras fresh out of a two-week COVID protocol. Behind strong defensive work by Gemma Rowland on the Bulldogs 6’5″ post Gracie Johnson, along with a good offensive day from Maya Rowland, the Lady Cobras went to the wire with Nyssa and almost pulled the upset. However, the Bulldogs got a strong push late with a 17-11 run and Nyssa closed out the win 45-38 over Central Linn. Nyssa advanced to play the Salem Academy in the Green Bracket Championship on Saturday evening, with the Crusaders taking Regis to the woodshed in their semifinal win. Annabelle Brawley put up a monster performance in her second game back from injury, along with great performances from Aubrey Smith and Grace Hinkle. It was a much needed blowout, confidence win for Salem Academy, who have been plagued by injuries to stars Dylainee Carmony (Torn ACL, MCL. Meniscus) and Aly Herber (Leg), alongside slow game starts this season.
Black Bracket – 2A #1 Gervais vs 1A #1 Country Christian: These are two evenly matched teams who had a one-point duel earlier in the season, with Country Christian prevailing at home. Both teams boast strong post presence, fundamentally sound defensive play, and fully capable armies of shooters, presenting a dream pairing to kick off the new year. The winner will be the team that can control the boards and win the battle in the paint as three-point shooting isn’t reliable enough to win with. It’s a toss-up on who will win, with the slight edge leaning towards Gervais getting revenge.
Green Bracket – 3A #2 Nyssa vs 2A #7 Salem Academy: If we had a fully healthy Crusaders, I’d say this one would be a huge showdown. However, down two big posts and instability in that area will be a major challenge for Salem Academy against 6’5″ big Gracie Johnson. Salem Academy have shooters that can go deep or mid-range for buckets, but can they get enough possessions and stops to keep it close? Not to mention, Nyssa also has firepower from the field and their 6’5″ Johnson can pop threes like she’s playing 2K. I’m picking Nyssa to win, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Salem Academy keeps pace for a while, especially if they get off fast like they did on New Year’s Eve!