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2016-17 season one of the most challenging, Strickland says; new leaders, roles on tap for state title defense

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jefferson High boys basketball coach Pat Strickland cuts down a net after the Democrats' victory over Clackamas in the Class 6A championship game at Chiles Center.Best high school boys basketball team of all-time?

Jefferson High coach Pat Strickland agrees with many who think it's still the 2000 Democrats. That team featured six Division I players under then-coach/now-Portland Interscholastic League athletic director Marshall Haskins — and didn't lose a game.

"That 2000 team, to me, is the best," Strickland says.

How about Strickland's Demos, who just won the Class 6A championship?

"A notch or two below — but I would put us above a lot of other teams," Strickland says.

And, in his opinion the 2016-17 state champs would have matched up well with any of West Linn's teams in the Lions' Payton Pritchard-led run to four consecutive crowns.

Strickland bases that in part on past results. A year ago, the Democrats almost beat West Linn in the 6A semifinals, coming up short largely because they lacked any size.

Enter 6-9 Kamaka Hepa, a transfer from Alaska, whose arrival this season gave Jeff more ability to handle bigger opponents.

But also, and by comparison, look back to 2014, when Jefferson was winning the last of its five state titles at the 5A level and West Linn claimed title No. 2 in its four-year stretch atop 6A. The Democrats beat the Lions 75-66 that season, and finished the year ranked higher nationally than the Lions.

And then, early in the 2014-15 season, the Demos won at West Linn, 64-52.

Speculation aside, even with all of Jefferson's great basketball over the decades, Strickland says the season that just ended was one of the most challenging, because the No. 1-ranked Democrats were on everyone's radar all the way.

"For the most part, we go with the flow of that, because we're Jefferson, but more than any year I've been here (since 1999), it felt like we had the target on our back," he says.

The 2016-17 Democrats were able to turn back all their in-state challengers, though, losing only to Gonzaga College of Washington, D.C., in the Les Schwab Invitational, as they finished 27-1, and ranked 23rd in the nation by MaxPreps.

"And we had a lot of guys sick throughout the season, and were in some tough games," Strickland says.

The Demos will lose unanimous all-6A tournament guard Geno West, fellow starters Thomas Miles and Amari Stafford, and rotation players Zyshawn Strickland and Dylan O'Brien to graduation.

But Strickland says don't overlook the Demos in 2017-18. Not with Hepa, Marcus Tsohonis and Robert Ford returning, along with others who have been more in the wings and are expected to be ready to move up to fulltime varsity play.

The leadership of West and Co. will be missed, "but we have some young guys in the stables who are excited and willing," Strickland says.

Among those who figure to get called upon for more work: center Sage Leigh, who is 6-5 and will be a senior; Will Taylor, who was a 6-4 sophomore forward/center on the junior varsity this season; and Leontay Hudson, a 6-3 junior JV forward/post. The Jefferson JV team lost only one game.

"Sage will give Kamaka a chance to go on the perimeter more next year," Strickland says.

The coach says he envisions a Terrence Jones-like role for Hepa, comparing a former Democrat-turned-NCAA champion-turned NBA player with the youngster out of Barrow, Alaska.

"He's one of those do-it-all kind of guys like Terrence was — he can bring the ball up the court," Strickland says. "We won't be really guard-heavy next year like we have been. I see Kamaka posting up but also playing outside, taking advantage of mismatches."

Part of that is getting Hepa ready for his college basketball future.

"I see him playing as a stretch 4 and maybe a little 3 in college," Strickland says.

Strickland says all the Pac-12 schools have offers out to Hepa, along with the likes of Texas, Miami, Gonzaga and more — and the coach is hoping Hepa can show off-season strides and weight/strength development to interest other big-name schools, including Kentucky and Duke.

"He's a very cerebral kid, a great passer, has a great feel for the game. You want to go through him, have him make plays for the team, and that will transfer over to the college game for him, as well," Strickland says. "He's also shown a great work ethic. I was opening him the gym for him at 6 in the morning this season."

Tsohonis, 6-5, will be a junior next season and starting for the third year in a Demos uniform.

"I think Marcus can be even better than Geno — it's scary," Strickland says. Marcus has the length, and once he figures it out on defense to play it hard on every possession, that will put him over the top as being one of the best players to come out of Oregon.

"He's going to get stronger and better. I'm looking for him to step up in a major way."

Ford is a tough-nosed, quick-hands guard heading into his senior season.

"With his toughness, rebounding and defense, he can lead us, too," Strickland says.

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