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They believe a repeat of last year is not out of the question

by:  JONATHAN HOUSE - Milwaukie senior guard Alexis Noren (2), pictured on the attack in the Mustangs season opener with Oregon City, has been  a sparkplug for the Mustangs this season, averaging 15 points, 4.8 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 4.4 steals in Milwaukies first five games.It would be difficult to match or top last year, when Milwaukie High School’s girls basketball program had a school-record season. But the Mustangs aim to do just that.

“We’re definitely going back to [the eight-team Class 5A State Tournament in] Eugene,” said Milwaukie senior co-captain April Meads.

“And we want to be league champs again,” said senior co-captain Alexis Noren. “Only this time we’re going to take the ‘co’ from league champions. We’re going to be league champions, not co-champions.”

Last season was a year of firsts for the Mustangs. In 2011-12 they earned fourth place at the Class 5A State Tournament, defeating Wilsonville 42-35 in the trophy game, after going 13-1 in the Northwest Oregon Conference and tying the Wildcats for the conference championship.

It was the first time since 1980 that a Milwaukie girls basketball team had won at least a share of a league title, the first time that a Milwaukie girls team had ever advanced to the final eight in postseason play, and the first time a Milwaukie girls team had won a trophy at state.

The Mustangs finished the 2011-12 season with an overall record of 24-5, setting a school record for most wins, and going a perfect 11-0 on their home floor.

The Mustangs have been playing one of the toughest preseason schedules in Class 5A this preseason, keeping pace with some of the top Class 6A programs in the state. Their first five opponents — Oregon City, St. Mary’s, Glencoe, Jesuit and Tualatin — all made the sweet 16 in Class 6A last season. Oregon City beat St. Mary’s in the 2012 Class 6A fourth-place final; Glencoe made the eight-team state tournament and lost to eventual champion South Medford in the first round. Jesuit lost to St. Mary’s in the round of 16, and Tualatin lost to South Medford in the round of 16.

In postseason play through last weekend, the Mustangs (3-2) had beaten St. Mary’s (51-47), Glencoe (41-34) and Tualatin (50-34). They lost to Jesuit (49-43) in overtime and they lost to Oregon City 65-51, although they were within eight points of the Pioneers in the third quarter, after tailing 10-0 to start the game.

“I’m not surprised [we’ve been able to compete with top 6A programs],” Meads said. “We’re not a bad team....”

“I think it’s good that we’re playing really tough teams,” senior Lorissa Martine said. “It helps us realize how good we are and it gives us confidence.”

“We like the tough schedule,” Noren said. “It’ll help our RPI rankings, and if we win some of these games we’ll get a higher ranking, which should mean home games in the play-in and play-off rounds.”

The Mustangs have graduated two key players from last year in 6-0 wing Nicole Hannifan and 5-11 wing Kendal Kirschenman. But they are not without talent. They start five senior lettermen and three of the five are seeing their third year of starting action.

The Mustangs return six lettermen from last year: seniors Noren (5-10 guard/point guard), Meads (5-10 wing), Martine (5-7 point guard), Emily Downs (5-10 forward/post) and Taylor Cunningham (5-6 forward/post); and junior Shelby Enevoldsen (5-10 forward/post). Noren saw starting action when she was a freshmen and Meads and Martine are third-year starters. All three earned conference all-star recognition last season.

“We’ve lost some height and athleticism, but right now our guards are better than last year...,” said Milwaukie coach Kevin McElroy.

“We’ve become much more of a perimeter team,” Noren said. “So far it hasn’t been too detrimental.”

“We’re stepping it up on defense because we don’t have anyone six-foot or over,” Meads said.

“And rebounding, we want to limit opponents to one shot,” Noren said.

“And we’ve got to play as a team.”

Noren, Downs, Martine and Meads were the Mustangs’ scoring leaders in their first five games. Noren averaged 15 points a game, scoring a game-high 20 points against Oregon City, a game-high 22 points in the win over Tualatin, and a team-high 11 points at Glencoe.

Downs averaged 9 points a game, scoring in double figures against Oregon City (12 points) and in the Tualatin game (11 points). Martine (8 ppg) led the Mustangs with 17 points in their win over St. Mary’s; Meads (7.6 ppg) scored a team-high 12 points in the overtime loss at Jesuit and she tallied 10 points at Glencoe.

“The girls are playing with a lot of confidence now, and they’re playing well,” McElroy said.

Rounding out this year’s roster are: senior Hana Whisman (5-4 guard), junior Breena Webb (5-6 guard), sophomore Chloe Hester (5-6 wing), and freshmen Breena Webb (5-6 guard) and Merrily Jones (6-2 post). Jones is undergoing rehabilitation from a knee injury and McElroy said it was unknown whether she would be able to play this season.

“She would help us out right away,” McElroy said.

The Mustang coach added: “We’ve got the most seniors playing since I’ve been here and that’s helped a lot. [Having a good year] means the most to seniors because it’s their last year.”

Based on last year, McElroy says he believes that Parkrose and Sherwood will be his charges’ toughest opponent in conference.

“From what I’ve seen so far, I’d say Parkrose [will be our toughest opponent in the NWOC],” Martine said. “I played with three of their girls on a tournament team and all three are solid players.”

“Wilsonville has lost their three best players, including the league MVP,” Noren said.

Next up for the Mustangs in preseason is a home game with Pendleton this Friday.

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