Despite the loss of two key players this season, the Cougars look poised to make another deep run in the playoffs

PIONEER PHOTO: CONNER WILLIAMS - Country Christian senior Debby Grandle (23) sets up the Cougars' offense during jamboree play earlier this season. When Country Christian girls' basketball head coach Russell Halverson learned that two of his key players from previous seasons wouldn't be part of this year's roster, he admits that he was nervous.

The players have since eliminated those doubts from Halverson's mind with their ever-improving play and chemistry as they have earned a six-game winning streak amidst a very tough preseason schedule.

"I just didn't know what to think of the team, not having your starting point guard for the past few years who is such a high-caliber player (senior Anna Farner, who suffered a torn ACL over the summer), I was really hesitant on what my expectations were for this team," Halverson said. "And then with the schedule that I had built, it was with a team that I thought was going to be really, really good, so not only did we lose [players], but the schedule was just a gauntlet of competition, and I was pretty nervous about it frankly. I don't mind good competition, but it just wears on the kids if you're getting beat up every night."

Nearly the complete opposite of that has happened as the Cougars have moved to 7-2 overall and 1-0 in Valley 10 play, securing a six-game win streak heading into the holiday break with a 55-35 win over no. 3-ranked South Wasco County on Thursday night. And this isn't to say that Halverson was wrong or misguided in his earlier hesitations to claim that this Cougar team would be as good as previous ones; he lost two starters (Farner and senior Jasmine Griffith), and that would throw doubts into the mind of any coach.

"I'm really starting to think that this team is still very good, they're just different … they look like they're getting a lot of confidence with each game, and I'm really scolding myself a little bit for maybe underestimating them in my mind," he said.

One of those main differences, he said, is senior Debby Grandle, who made the transition to point guard (from forward last season).

"She's not the typical kind of kid you'd put there at the point, and yet she has overcome maybe some of those areas where she doesn't have as many natural gifts with fundamental play, smart decision-making, and coachability," Halverson said.

The other biggest pleasant surprise to come up this year has been the extreme growth of a number of players who Halverson said he didn't quite know if they would be ready for this year.

"Everybody knows what you've got with Mollie [Lewandowski], she's gotten better and she's amazing, and I talk about Debby switching positions, but she's a fantastic player who does her job, everybody kind of knows those players. And Sarah [Phillips] has improved, but you know what you got with her because she's a phenomenal athlete and a great basketball player."

"The ones that still had questions are the ones beyond those three kids, it's the four, five, six and seven, and I think that's been one of the biggest success stories for this group so far; those ones are Katie Sandberg, Sierra Ross, Kendall Halverson, and then Meghan McGrath is starting to get some endurance and mobility back, looking like she's starting to get in mid-season form."

And while Farner is working to have a chance at coming back at some point in the season, Halverson said both she and her family are focused on her overall health, because she has goals of playing one or multiple sports in college. And the Cougars aren't sitting around waiting for her return – not that they wouldn't welcome her if she did come back – because they're trying to make a run with the team they have now.

"We are going forward and doing our best to prepare for the fact that this is our team for the rest of the year," Halverson said. "But at the same time, I do believe that that potential [of Farner coming back] is there. She is still, even in a hobbled state, an amazing player."

And while Halverson said his expectations for the season may have changed when they were thrown a curveball (or two), the players' expectations never changed at all.

"They made it clear from the get go to me that they want to make a run and be playing on the last day of the season," Halverson said. "This team knows how to win, and they've done a lot of it since their high school careers started."

"There are a lot of good teams out there this year at our level, more than I've seen in the past few years … but we keep playing a lot of them and we'll be successful, so I think this group right now is a top-five caliber team at our level, and realistically, if they keep improving, I could see them making a run and potentially playing in the state title game again," Halverson said. "But we've got a lot of time until then and a lot of good teams to play."

The Cougars get a week off for the holidays before returning home on Dec. 28 to take on Crane at 6 p.m.

Conner Williams
Sports Reporter/News Contributor
503-829-2301 ext. 341
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