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Talented Crusaders focused on here and now

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TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit junior small forward Josie Hooklandd is one of a number of Crusaders who can come off the bench and play well for head coach Jason Lowery.

All the parts to win a Class 6A girls basketball state championship reside in the Knight Center.

Size in the post with Alzena Henry and Hadley Wilhoite. Skill at the guard spots in Kate Andersen, Lexie Becker and Ellie Sears. Experience on the floor, depth on the bench and a veteran head coach in Jason Lowery, who already sports a state crown and multiple Metro League banners on his resume.

But ask the Crusaders about their title hopes and they’ll promptly push them to the side. Jesuit, for all the exposure it received with the state’s top ranking, has taken a steady approach to the 2015-16 season.

“Small things get the big things done,” said Becker. “A lot of teams have the same goal, but we like to take it one play at a time, one game at a time. As long as we keep working hard, I think we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.”

“Once we do the little things, like rebounding and defense, we start to click and everything comes to us,” added Andersen.

Jesuit was ranked No. 1 in the initial 6A coaches poll for multiple reasons. There is talent and seasoning to spare on the defending Metro champion’s roster, not to mention motivation after coming oh so close to knocking off South Salem — the eventual 2014-15 state titlists — in the state quarterfinals last season.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior power forward Alzena Henry broke out at the Class 6A state tournament last season and is the Crusaders anchor in the middle.

Henry (she’s committed to play next year at Long Beach State), Andersen (University of Portland), Sears (Westmont College) and sharpshooter Kory Oleson (Western Oregon) all singed with their respective college choices during the early signing period. Henry is one of the best posts in the state, a physical yet skilled player in the paint who blossomed at the state tournament last year. Andersen is a flashy, crowd-pleasing combo guard who can play point or run the wing with equal ability. Oleson can hit three-pointers from just about anywhere on the floor and can help Henry on the boards. There’s depth too, with the ultra athletic Wilhoite leading a bench brigade that includes Amyr Lowe, Josie Hookland and Brooke Elorriaga.

Sure, there are challenges. Henry is one of the few true posts on the team, so team rebounding will be important. Starting well — both at the beginning of the game and in the second half — were somewhat troublesome in non-league play and Wilhoite said Jesuit will have to come out focused every game to avoid letdowns. But the talent level and condiments needed to win a state titles are present.

Jesuit, Wilhoite said, just has to make its presence felt with hard-working play.

“We’re going to make teams chase our intensity,” said Wilhoite. “We’re going to be scrappy and go after everything. I think more than anything we love to win games and we’d love to take it all the way. But we would really like to play the way we know how we can because we think there is quite a bit of potential that we haven’t tapped yet. We’re excited to see how far we can go once we get those things on lockdown.”

Becker said Jesuit’s offensive flow has improved starkly since last year. The drives-and-kicks, floor spacing and ball movement that are so essential to Lowery’s offense have become more “natural” according to Andersen, who noted the Crusaders’ high scoring clip in non-league play has come as a result of playing a copious amount of games together the past three seasons.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior forward Kory Oleson is one of the best outside shooters in the Class 6A classification and hopes to help the Crusaders reach the 6A state title game this season.

“We have a stronger grip of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Becker.

Wilhoite said that establishing trust among the Crusaders will help when games get tight. Whether that’s knowing a teammate will provide help-side defense along the back line if somebody gets beat off the dribble or believing a comrade will crash the offensive boards after a missed shot, reliance on one another is essential.

“It’s all up to us,” said Wilhoite. “It’s up to us to put the work in each and every day in practice and in games. We’re demanding more of ourselves and creating good habits. Sometimes we have some bad tendencies ... but we just have to show teams we’re a force to reckoned with. That’s something we’re getting better at.”

Henry said the confidence and cohesion formed by nearly knocking off South Salem in the state quarterfinals last year has carried over to this season. The Crusaders lost in the consolation final to Beaverton and took home sixth in state, yet with so many coming back motivated and improved from that Chiles Center trial, there’s an impetus to get back and do something great.

“We’ve really evolved,” said Henry. “Taking that and implementing it into this year is helping us grow even more. We know each other. We know what to do and how we want to play. Putting that all together is this year, I feel.”

“Last year makes us want it even more,” added Becker. “It’s a good starting point for us, but we know we can do better than that. It’s a really good push for us to know we can improve this season.”