The seeds of a superlative state championship season were planted back in June when the Southridge girls basketball team reconvened with both familiar faces and teeming newcomers.
The Skyhawks traversed the West Coast, from Oregon City to Las Vegas to San Diego to Seattle, playing countless AAU games together as the Northwest All Stars, integrating Maggie Freeman, Cameron Brink and McKelle Meek with the incumbent Natalie Hoff, Kaelin Immel and the rest of Southridge's established senior class. On a micro level the basketball aspect was important in formulating team roles and assessing duties. But on a macro level, the copious amount of team dinners, trips to the movie theater, prolonged hours on the planes and buses, the times hanging out in the hotel were the building blocks upon which the Skyhawks constructed their championship foundation.
Southridge's team chemistry was unshakable, its hard work unmatched, its team talent level untouchable.
And on Saturday, in the biggest game this group has ever played together, the Skyhawks reaped what they sowed.
Despite having never played in a state championship tournament, let alone a Class 6A title game before, Southridge overwhelmed Oregon City with a wave of team unity, smothering defense and red-hot shooting in the first half to grab a 31-12 halftime lead and ultimately thundered to a 45-27 state championship win at the Chiles Center on Saturday.
"From the beginning we just all got along and loved each other like sisters," Southridge senior guard Sofia Riverman said. "It's something you can't fake. You can't force it. It just something that happened naturally from the very beginning. And we're just so lucky to have that sisterhood. We brought that to the court every game and that's what got us this championship. This is honestly the best feeling. We've been working for this since we started club last year and to be at this point is so amazing."
"When we play, we just flow together and that's because of the team chemistry we have," Hoff said. "We know where each other is on the court and we love each other so we want to give up that one pass to get a better shot to help our teammates. A lot of teams just play together on the court and off it, it's rough. We hang out together and we play basketball together. That's what made this so great. We worked so hard and to see it pay off is just awesome."
"I've never been on a team like this where we are a real family," Southridge senior shooting guard Molly Morey said. "You say that a lot with teams, but there's no other way to describe that bond we have. We built that really early. We've been working a year for this and we knew we wanted it. The first couple of times we played together it was kind of a mess, as you would expect, but we came together realized how much fun we have and how much we love each other."
The state title was Southridge's first since 2010 and the sixth in the program's illustrious history. As a nine-year-old sitting behind the Skyhawk bench back in '10 as her dad, Dave — an assistant under former head coach Michael Meek — and Southridge captured the title in '10, Immel dreamed of being on a state title team someday. And, as a senior, the captain knew long ago this year's squad was gifted and cohesive enough to take home the crown.
"If we knew how to work hard and have a good attitude this whole season, then our talent and team chemistry would do the rest," Immel said. "We didn't get cocky. We we didn't think too far ahead when we had big wins. We knew we had to stay focused and keep working hard and keep trying. It's just an amazing feeling to know we've accomplished our goals with the work you've put in your whole life."
The state championship tilt, played before a capacity crowd, started out humbly enough with an early 6-6 tie between the two powerhouse programs midway through the first quarter. But then Freeman, the North Medford transplant with the sweet southpaw stroke, started to percolate. The junior forward hit two threes, both off feeds from Immel to go up 12-7. Then, Freeman got Oregon City's N'Dea Flye on a switch in the post and burrowed inside for a baby hook shot, plus the foul. The junior finished off the and-one at the free throw line to give Southridge an 18-8 lead at the end of the first.
"We knew we had confidence in ourselves and each other," Morey said. "We were nervous in the locker room before the game, but we loosened up. And, we knew if we played hard we could win it. We came out of the gates strong and finished strong."
Freeman's full quiver of offensive weapons were on display in the first half. She posted up the Pioneers' smaller guards and dropped home baby hoops or drew double teams and whipped seeing eye passes to perimeter sharpshooters like Morey and Meek. And her southpaw stroke, as it was all tournament long, was tuned in as the lefty laced a pair of triples and made four-of-seven free throws. Immel's impact both tangibly in the box score and leading her team with poise and patience was immense. Whether it was doling out high fives, clapping at a teammate or shouting encouragement,, Immel led vocally and by example. The senior had five points, six rebounds and three assists in the first half and supplied the sort of calming influence in the early going as the Skyhawks settled into the state championship ambience and found their shooting legs.
Southridge's defense was championship quality, particularly in the second quarter when the Skyhawks stonewalled Oregon City's guard play with their 2-3 zone and took away the Pioneers' offensive pace with elongated arms, hyperactive feet and strung together helpside. The Pioneers scored just four points in the second quarter and couldn't generate any sort of offense in the first half as Immel and Freeman kept the scoring pace up. Southridge closed the first half on an 11-0 run.
"I think we've perfected that zone and got it to the point where we could shut teams down," Riverman said. "Give credit to Oregon City. They're a great team, but we were just able to come together on defense and communicate more than we have all year. Talking on defense and being one team on defense really helped us."
"We just decided we were gonna get a lead fast and pound it on them," Immel said. "It started with our defense. We pressured them the whole time and translated that into our offense."
Riverman was instrumental in helping stem the tide and protecting Southridge's second quarter double digit lead by playing solid defense, handling the basketball with confidence and keeping the Skyhawks' offense moving. With Brink in and out of the game due to foul trouble, it was Riverman who came off the bench and filled in admirably.
"My mentality was just to fight every minute that I was out on the court," Riverman said. "My role this year has been big defensively. I come in and try to shut down people on offense. Tonight I just left it all on the court. This is it me for me. Being a senior, this was all I had. It was my last game and I knew I had to bring it."
Southridge only scored three points in the third quarter, but led 34-21 at the end of three thanks in large part to that bountiful first half. And in the fourth, the Skyhawks were able to keep the hammer down and freewheel away to another net-cutting ceremony. The Skyhawks held Oregon City to just 23 percent shooting and 1-for-14 from three-point land overall. Freeman scored 14 of her team-high 15 points in the first half. Immel finished with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists.
"We didn't want to look too far ahead, we just wanted to take it one quarter at a time and not rush anything," Riverman said. "We wanted to play our game, never get too comfortable and keep pounding away. That's what we did for four quarters."
For all the talent on the floor and coming off the bench, Southridge played a selfless, seamless, egoless style of basketball. While Brink, Freeman and Immel were all capable of owning the spotlight and basking in the limelight of individual glory, their solo talents weaved perfectly into the team fabric. Nobody hogged the ball or sequestered the bulk of the shot attempts. The so-called stars put the team before themselves and everyone sacrificed to get to the promised land.
And, as a whole, the Skyhawks bought into what head coach Michael Bergmann preached all season long: defense first and unselfish team play. The newcomers fit in early and when the lofty expectations were placed on Southridge's shoulders, it was their dedication to team success that softened the pressure of being the top-ranked team in 6A. Southridge finished the season with a 27-2 record and didn't lose to a 6A team.
"We clicked right away," Riverman said. "We knew this could be something special and kept building on it over the year and finally made it to this point."
"We don't look at it as the starting five and then the rest of the team," Hoff said. "We think of ourselves as all together."
For Immel, Morey, Riverman, Olivia Cole, Morgan Bullock and Hannah Orcutt, the state championship was the perfect way to close out their Skyhawk careers. And for Brink, Hoff, Meek and Freeman Saturday's state title showing might just be the start of something special. With all four underclassmen scheduled to return next season and even more youthful talent in the pipeline, another Skyhawk dynasty could be in the making.
"We're excited for the future, it should be a lot of fun," Hoff said with a smile.