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St. Marys, Cascade Christian boys eager for state

It took different approaches, but the boys basketball programs at St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian high schools are ecstatic to find themselves again among the best teams in the state at the Class 3A level.

For the Far West League co-champion Crusaders, their return to the state tournament in Coos Bay offers a lesson in resilience and sticking to a plan.

For the Challengers, making it back to the eight-team event at Marshfield and North Bend high schools was simply a matter of maturity and determination.

Either way, St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian count themselves among the quarterfinalists eager to get things going Thursday when the 3A state championships begin at Marshfield High.

The sixth-seeded Crusaders (15-9) open at 6:30 p.m. against No. 3 Salem Academy (19-5), while the 10th-seeded Challengers (21-5) will follow at 8:15 against No. 2 Dayton (22-6).

In earlier contests, two-time reigning champion and No. 1 seed De La Salle North Catholic (19-6) plays No. 9 Oregon Episcopal (19-7) at 1:30 p.m., and No. 4 Amity (20-6) takes on No. 5 Creswell (20-5) at 3:15.

“Obviously, De La Salle North Catholic is the back-to-back winner and until somebody beats them, they’re still the highest-ranked team and favorite,” said Cascade Christian head coach Brian Morse, “but I really think it’s the most wide open tournament I’ve ever seen at Coos Bay. The worst-seeded team could beat any team.”

That’s Morse’s hope, since his at-large squad is the lowest seed to advance to the Elite Eight.

Helping make that more realistic is the fact that the Challengers already boast wins over four other tournament teams in Dayton, Salem Academy, Oregon Episcopal and St. Mary’s. Cascade Christian actually split a pair of regular season meetings with FWL rival St. Mary’s and Dayton, Thursday’s opening foe.

“They’re definitely the favored team going into this game,” said Morse of the Pirates, “but we’ve got a chance.”

Simply having a chance is impressive for St. Mary’s considering the Crusaders won only three of their first 10 games. Unfazed by the slow start under first-year head coach Richard Vasey, who moved over after success leading the St. Mary’s girls basketball program, the Crusaders have won seven straight and 10 of their last 11 games.

“I’m really impressed with how the boys kept their composure and stayed positive to kind of get to the point where you could make a run like we did and still have enough time left in the season to be able to make it to state,” said Vasey.

“We had talked Day 1 with the kids that it’s about getting ready for league and winning some tough road games in league and then trying to get that home playoff game,” he added. “The boys really trusted and stuck with the plan, and here we are.”

Leading the way for St. Mary’s has been Far West League player of the year Tre Foster, who is averaging 17.8 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 1.4 assists and 1.6 steals.

The athletic 6-foot-5 forward, who has committed to play football at Western Oregon University, has been a do-it-all force in the paint who Vasey said hasn’t gotten enough due across the state.

“One of the big things about trying to make it to state was hopefully letting other people see Tre play,” said Vasey. “Everybody in the league has seen him and followed him but to kind of get up there to the state tournament and get the opportunity for other people around the state to see him play is incredible. Hopefully, he continues to play the way he has because he has put together a really fabulous season.”

While Foster may not be a household name at the 3A level, there’s no question he’s been the focal point of defenses this season, often with two and three players thrown his way. Still, Foster is shooting 54 percent from the field and has learned how to better handle the attention.

“We know teams are going to try to stop him, that’s got to be every team’s goal,” said Vasey, “and to still have the season that he’s had is incredible. Plus, he’s really matured as a player. He’s had games where he hasn’t been the highest scorer but he’s still found a way to contribute and get other guys involved.”

First-team all-league point guard Josh Banton has enjoyed a similarly strong senior campaign, averaging 9.3 points, four rebounds, three assists and 1.5 steals per game, and junior wing Will Kranenburg has stepped up to propel the Crusaders.

Vasey said a big key to his team’s late surge was when junior James Forrester was moved into a sixth-man role off the bench and his production elevated to 10.1 points per game.

“He’s really stepped into that role and, man, it’s nice to bring a guy like that off the bench who can do so many different things for you,” said Vasey.

St. Mary’s last advanced to the state tournament in 2016, when the Crusaders won the 3A title with a 59-53 win over De La Salle North Catholic. A lack of experience at the final venue is a concern for Vasey but not something he expects will be a prevailing issue for a team hungry to prove it belongs.

“Obviously, we’re coming in with the fewest number of wins of anybody,” said Vasey, “but I think the boys are excited about seeing where we stand and competing on that stage. We’ve not competed a lot against those teams the past few years so kind of getting up there and seeing how we fit in the mix and everything is really exciting.”

On the flip side, Cascade Christian is back on the big stage after a hiatus last year in which the Challengers posted a rare eight-win season. That team began the year with only two wins in its first 15 games, and the bulk of the roster — 10 starters or impact players — returned this season determined to reclaim its status as one of the elite 3A programs.

Cascade Christian is making its third trip in four years to the state tourney, finishing fourth in 2018 and fifth in 2017.

“The whole team came back so they know our defensive principles, they know our offensive principles and they’re a whole year stronger,” said Morse. “Did I expect them to have 21 wins at this juncture? No, I didn’t, but they really play well together and they’ve bought into the defensive effort.”

The Challengers enter the tournament having finished as one of the state’s best in scoring defense, allowing 44.3 points per game.

“I have extremely hard-working kids that play 32 minutes of intense, calculated defense,” said Morse. “They rebound the ball really hard, and I’ve rarely ever seen them be outworked by any team.”

Junior Donminic Lewis has been joined by seniors Kiegan Schaan and Layne Collom to form a steady trio of leaders for Cascade Christian. Lewis averages 17 points, seven rebounds and four steals, while Collom drops in 12 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and Schaan adds 10 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

“Those three players play a big part in our success,” said Morse. “If we have two of them scoring well, then we’re going to win most all the games. If we have all three scoring well, then we’re going to win. The only time that did not happen was at St. Mary’s when we lost by two (70-68), but then again St. Mary’s made (a season-high) 13 3s that night.”

Should St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian mirror one another, be it with an opening loss or victory, the two Medford rivals would meet for a third time this season, either in Friday’s championship semifinals or consolation semifinals.

“Brian and I have been kind of avoiding that conversation,” Vasey said with a laugh of the pre-tourney preparations. “We communicate regularly but that hasn’t really come up being on the same side of the bracket. Everybody’s kind of under the assumption, I think, that we’re going to end up facing each other one more time one way or another.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

St. Mary's Tre Foster, left, and Cascade Christian's Cody Reece helped their teams to the 3A state tournament, which begins Thursday.