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Height-challenged Gladiators say they are aiming for Gill Coliseum

Gladstone girls have been impressive in preseason

No one on the team is taller than 5-9. But the coaches and players on Gladstone's girls basketball team believe they've got the makings of one of the best girls basketball teams in the history of their school.

'I think we have a really good chance of finishing on top [in the Capital Conference],' said Gladstone coach Molly Wilson. 'Where most of the teams in the league had seven or eight seniors last year, we only had three. We've got most of our players back….

'They've played basketball together for a long time. They're very quick; they get up and down the floor….

'Our passing [this season] has been really good, and our ball handling is much better [than last season].'

If the Gladiators are successful in winning league, it will be their first conference title since 2007, when Gladstone's girls team bagged a school-record 25 wins and advanced to the state final for the first time in school history.

The Gladiators have been impressive in early preseason, going 5-0, with one of their wins a 53-48 win at seventh-ranked Philomath, a team that since then has beaten second-ranked Cascade 53-42.

The Gladiators have out-scored their first five opponents 59-39. Freshman Molly Webster, a 5-7 point guard, came of the bench to light up the scoreboard for a game-high 19 points in a recent 78-28 rout of Sweet Home.

Senior Ashley Beykovsky (5-2 guard) and juniors Amber Jensen (5-6 guard), Madi Cronin (5-7 guard), Taylor Plunkett (5-9 post) and McKenna Hopkins (5-8 guard) have been starting for the Gladiators.

Beykovsky, Jensen, Cronin and Plunkett started last year, when the Gladiators went 3-7 in the Tri-Valley Conference and finished with an overall record of 9-14.

The Gladiators came into this season with a lot of confidence and high expectations. The five starters and Webster were members of Gladstone's state championship soccer team in the fall.

Hopkins, (14 points, 4 assists), Cronin (14 points), Jensen (11 points, 4 steals) and Beykovsky (9 rebounds, 4 steals) played pivotal roles in the Gladiators' recent win at Philomath.

Hopkins did not play last year, but she's been averaging double figures in scoring.

Team captain Ashley Beykovsky admits that the 5-0 start is somewhat of a surprise.

'The way we started out in practice was not so great,' Beykovsky recalls. 'We were turning the ball over and the jayvee team was killing us. At the time, we were thinking we weren't going to win a game.

'But the moment we stepped on the court for a game, it was like a whole new team. We were working together as a team and everything was clicking….

'The way I feel now, I wouldn't be surprised if we made it to [the final eight at Gill Coliseum.'

Beykovsky says the biggest differences from last year are, 'We're a lot faster, and I think we've finally learned how to play together and not bicker.'

'We've played together a long time,' said co-captain Amber Jensen. 'We all know each other and what we're going to do….'

Gladstone girls soccer coach Steve Thomas says he isn't at all surprised with the Gladiators' early season success in basketball.

'They believe in each other and they're team players,' Thomas said. 'They're playing team ball….

'They played as a team in soccer, and it's just carried over into basketball.'

Should the Gladiators win the conference, it won't be a cakewalk. A recent coaches poll ranked Madras, La Salle and Molalla first, ninth and 10th in the state respectively in Oregon 4A girls basketball.

'Madras has a really good point guard and a really good big girl,' said Jensen. 'They work really well together.'

'They're good, but so are we,' said Beykovsky. 'And we have more than just two people working together. We have five.'

Tri-Valley Conference teams Gladstone (5-0), Madras (6-1), North Marion (5-1) and La Salle (5-2) had a combined win-loss record of 21-4 in play through Dec. 18. Defending TVC champion La Salle went 28-1 and made the state final last season; Madras went 20-8 and the White Buffaloes defeated Henley for third place.

La Salle has graduated TVC co-players of the year Brittaney Niebergall and Megan Hays, along with three other players who earned all-league honors.

Madras graduated all-conference guards JoElla Smith and Lucy Suppah and 5-11 post Cheyenne Wahnetah. But the White Buffaloes return Abby Scott, a 6-0 first-team all-conference post.

Plunkett was a second-team all-league player for Gladstone last season, while Beykovsky and Jensen were honorable mention all-star selections.

The Gladiators conclude their preseason in early January, playing Cascade on the road on Jan. 3, hosting Seaside on Jan. 6, playing at Banks on Jan. 10, and entertaining Stayton on Jan. 13.

League play begins on Tuesday, Jan. 17, when the Gladiators battle Madras, at Gladstone.