St. Mary's girls head basketball coach Richard Vasey and senior Emily Alvarez spoke of roller coasters on Tuesday night.
The fun kind and the scary kind.
Last year's metaphorical ride was thrilling — in a good way — Vasey said.
This year's ride?
"A little bumpy," said Alvarez.
The third-ranked Crusaders were happy, healthy and whole as they cruised into the Class 3A state championship before falling to Valley Catholic, 40-27, last winter.
St. Mary's has been snake-bitten with injuries this season. But through the adversity the Crusaders (17-3) have mostly kept on winning.
They downed Illinois Valley, 50-27, to wrap up Southern Cascade Hybrid regular-season play with a 7-1 record on Tuesday.
Second-place Lakeview improved to 6-1 in conference action with a victory over Cascade Christian on Tuesday. The Honkers host league opponent Rogue River on Friday.
The first round of the 3A state playoffs begin on Feb. 28 after the SCH playoffs. The top two teams from the conference advance.
"We kind of take the approach that last season was a storybook season, but every season is a new journey," Vasey said. "And it's been a very interesting kind of crazy journey."
The Crusaders lost key starter Viv Juncal for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon about midway through conference play. They went a couple weeks without high-scoring starters Lillian Martin (hamstring) and Rose Alvarez (knee) and have also had a few players miss contests due to illness.
Things can only get better, Vasey hopes. The silver lining is that Martin and Rose Alvarez are back, and those two are part of a varsity roster loaded with experience. Every member played in last season's championship tilt.
"The nice thing is being a veteran team we know what this next part is like," Vasey said. "We know how to play in tough games and in tough environments. I don't know that we are really where we need to be coming into this homestretch, but we have a few days to heal up and work on some stuff. Once we know how things will shape up it gives us time to prepare."
From an outsider's perspective, St. Mary's still looked pretty darn solid.
"Richard does a good job," Illinois Valley head coach Loren King said. "He's a smart coach, not just a good coach. That helps a lot. And you have three kids there with their outside shooting (Martin and the Alvarez sisters), and that's a combo that's hard to handle. They have quickness with size. We don't have the experience to match with them."
St. Mary's went ahead 15-7 after the first quarter and 22-9 by halftime against the Cougars (7-14, 2-5 SCH).
On the night, the normally deep-shooting Crusaders connected on just two 3-pointers and struggled with turnovers. But it didn't matter much against Illinois Valley, which has also had its share of injuries to contend with.
"We've had some kids who haven't been well and it showed here tonight," King said. "We've had different kids in practice so we're a little out of sync with our offense."
Martin bounced back from a cold first half to finish with 15 points, Emily Alvarez poured in 13 (including 11 on perfect shooting in the first quarter) and Dakotah Rothfus battled down low for 10 for the Crusaders, who got loads of second chances with strong rebounding.
"Right now we are pretty strong," Emily Alvarez said. "We had some bumpy rides and couldn't get together as much, but now we're coming back and are strong."
Alex LaFlamme had eight points for Illinois Valley.
Last year's postseason run showed Rothfus that anything is possible.
"It was more motivation to try harder because you know you can probably get there and win," she said.
ILLINOIS VALLEY (27) — Stewart 4, Miller 0, LaFlamme 8, Neville 0, Frederick 3, Dixon 4, Johnson 0, Primeau 4, Nordal 2, Crow 2, Burns 0. Totals: 11 5-11 27.
ST. MARY'S (50) — Weiland 0, E. Alvarez 13, Barnum 4, R. Alvarez 2, Martin 15, E. Vasey 2, Rothfus 10, Ramsay 4, Hough 0, M. Vasey 0, Miller 0. Totals: 22 4-7 50.
Illinois Valley 7 2 7 11 — 27
St. Mary's 15 7 19 9 — 50
3-point goals — St. Mary's 2 (E. Alvarez 1, Martin 1).
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt