by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Valley Catholic senior post Gabe Taylor was a 3A all-state performer last year as a junior.

The Valley Catholic boys’ basketball team has a lot to prove this season.

Valley has a hunger to verify that last year’s disappointing end to its banner season was nothing more than a two-game fluke at the 3A state tournament in Coos Bay.

The Valiants want to demonstrate they can rebound and deploy the kind of rugged defense that’s warranted and expected in the postseason when referees tend to swallow their whistles.

With Gabe Taylor, Jarrett Gray, Tysen Prunty and Carter Buuck back in the starting lineup and a talented bench ready to chip in, Valley — the No. 1 team in the 3A coaches’ preseason poll—above all wants to establish its worthy of a state championship.

A year ago, after crushing Cascade Christian in the state quarterfinals, the Valiants were vanquished by Blanchet Catholic in the semis in a 47-38 slugfest that sent Valley to the consolation bracket against Dayton. The Bulldogs bullied the Valiants as well. Though Dayton was not nearly as talented, Valley struggled from the field, missing shots they normally make, including a bountiful amount of layups due to the physicality of the tournament. The free throw line was unkind as well.

The loss drove the Valiants to go work out in the morning in the offseason, lift weights, and do conditioning. Whenever Valley needed motivation this summer, players reached down in their gut and grabbed ahold of that sickening feeling of losing in the state tournament.

“That didn’t sit well, having to think about that all summer,” said head coach Joel Sobotka. “We didn’t play our best in those last two games, and we got beat. We know we can play better. Our guys are hungry and dialed in right now. They want to come back and prove themselves.”

Valley is further ahead than it was this time a year ago because Sobotka and the Valiants are more familiarized with one another. Instead of teaching in practice, there’s a lot more review and assessment of execution in Sobotka’s second year at the helm. And, with a veteran crew in the fold the Valiants’ learning curve with Sobotka’s system is much less steep. Kazuma Lane, Taylor, Buuck, and Gray know what to expect from their head coach and what they need to do to win a state championship.

by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Valley Catholic senior shooting guard Carter Buuck will return in January for the start of Lewis and Clark League play.

“Those guys really need to set the tone every day in practice,” said Sobotka. “I challenge them to do that, so the younger guys see what it’s like, and they emulate that. You want guys who are trying to get better every day, and that’s those four guys. I like our group and the fact that I think we’re going to get better. We want to be playing our best basketball in March.”

Valley will be without its senior star Buuck until January, after the lefty tore his non-shooting shoulder up during the football season. Buuck’s a player who’s an extension of Sobotka on the floor, with his understanding of the game and willingness to do the little things. The 6-footer can play three or four positions on the floor and act as a second point guard along with Gray. Getting Buuck back come Lewis and Clark league play, to go along with Taylor, Gray and Prunty, will be a big boost with two months until tournament time. In the meantime, the Valiants need other guys such as Drew VanderZanden, David Baglai,and Alex Butz to seize the opportunity of extra playing time until Buuck makes his return.

The Valiants have a rugged preseason schedule with Blanchet Catholic, Dayton, Westside Christian and La Salle all on the docket. Three of those four teams defeated Valley last year.

“It’s not going to be one person who does it,” said Sobotka. “We’ve talked about everybody chipping in because Carter can do so many things whether it’s points, rebounds, or assists. We’ll have to do it by committee, and I think we have guys who can play well. Our returning starters are really going to have to take on that leadership role.”

Taylor was a first-team all-state pick last year who signed a letter of intent with the University of Portland in the fall. At 6-foot-7 with a soft outside shooting touch and fluid mobility for a big guy, Taylor can score on anyone from virtually any spot on the hardwood. Sobotka has challenged his star player to be more of a leader on both ends of the floor and become an aggressive rebounder on the glass.

“With the strength he’s added in the weight room since last season ended, I think that’s really going to pay off for him,” said Sobotka. “He’s looked fantastic so far, and he’s really settling in, and with his work ethic, has set himself up to have another great year.”

A 6-foot-1 floor general with great court vision and the desire to set up his teammates while still attacking, Gray is stepping up as a vocal leader. With Gray as the accelerator, Valley likes to onrush its opponent when the opportunity arises, but the desire is always to get quality shots whether it’s on the break or in the half court. Getting into teams defensively and clearing the glass will be consequential in setting up Valley’s offense and triggering transition chances.

“We always want to be on the attack, but we still can come down and execute in the half court if we need to,” said Sobotka. “That’s what I like about these guys. We can pick up full court, press, and trap but we can also play solid on offense.”

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