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Teamwork makes the dream come true — Oregon City girls are state champions for the twelfth time in the past 23 seasons

The Oregon City Pioneers did themselves and their community proud last week, battling back from a 12-point third quarter deficit to topple top-ranked South Medford 57-48 in Saturday night’s championship final of the 2014 Class 6A State High School Girls Basketball Championships, after advancing through convincing wins over seventh-ranked Tigard (67-44) and sixth-ranked Westview (70-52).by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City players and coaches pose proudly with their first place hardware following their 57-48 win over top-ranked South Medford in Saturdays championship final of the Class 6A High School Girls Basketball Tournament, held at the Moda Center.

Oregon City coach Kurt Guelsdorf was ecstatic following Saturday’s night’s come-from-behind victory.

“Heart of a champion!” Guelsdorf said. “Heart of a champion! A great comeback! It’s like a dream. Heart of a champion! Heart of a champion....!”

It’s Oregon City’s first state championship in girls basketball since 2009 and the Pioneers’ twelfth title since 1992, when they won their first title under retired coach Brad Smith. It’s the twenty-eighth straight season that Oregon City has trophied at state in girls basketball.

Although the Pioneers won handily in their quarterfinal with Tigard and their semifinal with Westview, Saturday night’s final with South Medford was no cakewalk.

The Pioneers trailed through much of the game, thanks to 10-for-30 (.333) shooting in the first half.

And Oregon City’s victory prospects appeared grim three minutes into the third period, when South Medford 6-2 forward Ashley Bolston, who has signed with Washington State, followed up a 3-pointer by Panther point guard Lauren Orndoff with a layup to gain South Medford it’s biggest lead of the night, at 40-28.

But there was no quit in the Pioneers. They continued their strategy of trying to force the tempo and tire the Panthers out, and they turned it up a notch in their half-court defense.

Oregon City shots that weren’t falling in the first half began to drop, while the Panthers struggled to find the basket. And while the Panthers missed their next seven shots from the floor, the Pioneers went on an 8-0 run.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City senior Jessica Gertz launches a 3-pointer in Saturday nights championship game with top-ranked South Medford.Oregon City senior forward Jessica Gertz hit two free throws, 5-11 sophomore post Taylor Shaw scored an inside bucket off a crisp pass from Gertz, freshman guard N’Dea Flye drove the lane for a bucket — twice. And South Medford’s lead was down to four points, at 40-36, with the third quarter winding down.

Sophomore point guard Cierra Walker connected from downtown to close out the third period, trimming the Panther lead to 42-39.

Gertz stole the ball in the half-court on South Medford’s first possession of the fourth quarter and went coast-to-coast to trim the lead to one.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City senior Toria Bradford goes on the attack in the state final with South MedfordAnd when Oregon City 5-6 guard Toria Bradford stepped in front of the 6-2 Bolston and drew a charge, players and fans alike could feel the momentum changing.

A short time later, Bradford drove the lane for a layup that put Oregon City up 43-42, gaining the Pioneers their first lead since late in the first quarter. And Oregon City fans rocked the Moda Center in celebration.

The Pioneers scored on their next five possessions. And when Gertz cashed in for a 3-pointer with 2:44 left to play, Oregon City had its biggest lead of the night, at 53-44.

The Pioneers then went without a turnover in a successful delay. And Walker and Gertz both made their free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

Shooting statistics reflect the turn in momentum as the second half progressed.

While the Pioneers made only 10-of-30 shots from the floor in the first half, they found the mark on 11-of-15 attempts (.733) after the halftime break.

And while the Panthers made 14-of-29 (.483) shots from the floor in the first half, they were only 7-of-27 (.259) in the second half.

Walker explained the turnaround in the Pioneers’ shooting: “We knew we had to have a shooter’s mentality. If your shot doesn’t go in, you have to put it behind you and move on to the next one. And eventually they’ll start falling.”

It was truly a team effort by the Pioneers, who had four players score in double figures — Gertz (17 points, 3 assists), Walker (13 points, 3 assists), Bradford (10 points, 3 assists) and Shaw (10 points).

Gertz was 5-of-10 from the field on the night, with three 3-pointers, and the Pioneer senior leader was a perfect 4-for-4 at the charity stripe; Walker made all three of her shots from beyond the arc; Bradford connected on 5-of-8 field goal attempts.

Shaw more than held her own with South Medford’s physical inside players, going 4-of-5 from the floor and hauling down 10 rebounds.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City starters (left to right) Jessica Gertz, Cierra Walker and Toria Bradford were honored as three of the top players at the 2014 Class 6A State Champinship Tournament.And Oregon City 5-7 senior Alyssa Durr played a pivotal role on defense, as she, with help from her teammates, all but shut down Bolston after the halftime break. Bolston, who finished with 11 points and seven assists, had only 4 points and one assist in the third and fourth periods. She was 2-of-8 from the field in the second half.

Guelsdorf praised his charges: “An unbelievable team, and I mean team. We are the sum of all our parts. We don’t have the All-Americans.... It’s just a bunch of kids that believe in each other and play for one another. Even down by 12, they believed that if they kept doing what they were doing, the shots would drop, and South Medford would get tired....

“It was tremendously gratifying to win, because they were a team that wasn’t expected to get a state title. But they did it.”

Walker explained the Pioneers’ success: “Hard work, teamwork, and effort. We left it all on the floor for our seniors.”

“I’m excited! Overjoyed!” said Durr. “Out of my four years, this was the year when people thought we had the least chance [of winning state].... We knew we would have to work harder than everyone else to get it. We’ve worked hard since the end of last season and we’ve done it. It’s unbelievable!”

“This means the world to me, because I came out to play this game for my grandpa, the Oregon City community, for former Pioneers, and for future Pioneers,” said Bradford.

Bradford explained the Pioneers’ unexpected success: “Everyone underestimated us, so we played every game with a chip on our shoulders. It showed on our hustle plays, on jump balls and diving on the floor to get loose balls. The little things. Playing for one another.”

Bradford continued, “I’m not at all surprised [we won state], because every day in practice, we go against our starters, while other teams face our starters maybe two games a year, and that gives us an advantage.”

“I’m really proud of our team,” said Gertz. “All of our hard work has paid off.”

Gertz explained the second-half comeback in the title game, “We came out with fresh energy. We just went out there and left everything on the floor.”

“This means a lot to me,” said Oregon City senior Stephanie Tolke. “I work just as hard as everyone else, and I take pride in being a great teammate and cheering my teammates on when I’m not playing. It means a lot. It’s what we’ve been working for all year.”

“Everyone doubted us,” said Walker. “They didn’t even think we’d win league. But we’ve put in the hard work. Three hours of practice every day, and we gave it our best every time we stepped on the floor.”

“It’s a dream come true,”Walker said. “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to win a state championship. I remember in Tri-State Basketball, as a fifth-grader, looking up at those banners in the gym and hoping that one day one of those banners would be mine.”

The Pioneer players this year played with the letters TMDW inscribed on their arms.

Durr explained what the letters mean: “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

The victory over South Medford was no small accomplishment. It was the third straight state final for the Panthers, who were state champions in 2012. And the Panthers entered the title game undefeated against opponents from Oregon and riding a 15-game win string. They had allowed opponents an average of just 42 points a game this season, and Oregon City’s 57 points was the most points scored by an Oregon opponent all season.

And while the Panthers were ranked the top team in Oregon all season, the Pioneers, although ranked No. 2, were decided underdogs. They did not have a single starter returning from last year’s team that handled Tigard (68-29) in the 2013 third-place final, after losing to eventual state champion Central Catholic (57-52) in the semifinals.

South Medford finished the 2013-14 season with an overall record of 26-4.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon City coach Kurt Guelsdorf takes flight as the final horn sounds in the championship final of the 2014 Class 6A High School Girls Basketball Tournament. Guelsdorfs Pioneers defeated top-ranked South Medford in the final to claim their first state championship since 2009.Oregon City finished the year with a record of 22-6, the Pioneers’ last loss in a Feb. 4 game at Three Rivers League rival West Linn, 68-61.

The Pioneers later avenged that loss and claimed their 19th league title in the past 20 seasons.

If anyone believes the Pioneers are going to go away next year or in the near future, they’d better think again. Only four players will be lost to graduation from this year’s 13-player state-tournament roster next season — Gertz, Bradford, Durr and Tolke.

Expected back are: juniors Lucy Kleiner (5-8 wing) and Maleah Herbaugh (5-10 post); sophomores Walker (5-8 point guard), Shaw (5-11 post), Jordan Kelly (5-6 wing), Lindsi Peters (5-5 guard), Katie Kammerer (5-11 post) and Taylor Knighton (5-9 post); and freshman N’Dea Flye (5-8 guard).

And the Pioneers are still hungry.

“My goals are to keep winning state [my junior and senior years], keeping winning league, and keep working hard,” said Walker.