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St. Paul High School girls define new roles, improve and rise to the test in short but intense summer season

It has only been about a month since St. Paul High School graduated its Class of 2017, but that has already been enough time for the girls basketball team to squeeze in a full season of summer play.

The Buckaroos, like almost every other team in the state, have put the finishing touches on summer league — the season after the season. And though the team was only going strong for less than three weeks total, it's plenty of time for the Bucks' coaching staff to evaluate where the team is heading when the winter season begins in November.SETH GORDON - Point guard Emma Connor brings the ball up the court during a summer league game last month. The Bucks went 17-8 and with progress shown by players like Connor, the Bucks are excited for the 2017-2018 season.

"Everybody was getting a step older and a step better," Coach Dave Matlock said. "Add it all up and I thought we had a great summer."

St. Paul is coming off of an enigmatic season in which it was ranked in the top 10 of the OSAA rankings for much of the season before falling off in the final week and just missing the playoffs. The Bucks have few parts to replace coming into next year, but the seniors who did leave — third team forward Elizabeth Brentano and Tri-River League third team guard Griselda Vargas-Ayala — were significant contributors to last season's success.

But that's what summer league is designed for. It's the first opportunity coaches have to see how their teams will look without the departed seniors; after 25 games, Matlock has a pretty firm grip on the team's outlook heading into next year.

"One of your biggest focuses is learning where the production is going to come from and try to get a good chunk of minutes from those girls, and then mix and match the younger girls with that group to see who can step up under pressure circumstances," Matlock said.

The coach said he saw good things from post Erin Counts, who will enter her sophomore year as the lone returner to earn all-conference honors after being named to the Tri-River second team in her freshman season.

He saw a lot of growth from Counts' sophomore teammate on the other side of the court, Isabelle Wyss, who was never able to play at full strength last season after injuring her ankle in the season opener.

"She never really did get into full shape last year," Matlock said. "Now, she's in full shape, healthy, coming off track, and she really ran the court well and was a huge presence inside."

Junior guard Emma Connor showed progress in her role (along with Counts) as the team's facilitator on offense, but she also provides a defensive presence and has shown a knack for rebounding that outstrips her 5-foot 5-inch frame.

"She's an incredible rebounder for the guard position and has gotten a lot stronger and elevates better," Matlock said.

For some players, the transition from one season to the next isn't about an expanded role on the court, but rather a larger presence in the locker room. Seniors Dessa Coleman and Logan Robinson will be counted on to fill the void left after Vargas-Ayala and Brentano graduated. Matlock sees the potential for them to fill the role well.

"I had a talk with them about being leaders this summer (and) to learn how to be leaders in the regular season," Matlock said. "They stepped up huge when they were able to be there; not only a stabilizing influence, but a lot of production filling in for Griselda and Elizabeth …"

St. Paul's record of 17-8 will quickly be forgotten as summer progresses, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the wins weren't important.

The coaching staff needs to run a delicate balance of finding out which units work well together while keeping the team motivated.

"It's a balance of both, because I feel that even in summer, particularly against certain teams, you have to win a certain amount for the girls to have confidence," Matlock said.

The two concepts — learning and competitive spirit — aren't mutually exclusive, Matlock said. Players fight for playing time just the same as in the regular season and prove who is going to perform in high-pressure situations. And the pressure is certainly there when going up against rivals like Kennedy or state-placing teams from larger schools like Class 3A Salem Academy and 4A North Marion.

"Ultimately the win isn't important, but striving for it is," he said.

With 25 games in less than a month, the summer season is more of a sprint compared to the marathon of the regular season. Matlock knows that it can be a grueling schedule, especially when factoring in Country Christian's back-to-back tournaments that guarantee teams eight games each weekend.

But he likens it to the end of the fall term when students are juggling the time spent between finals, family obligations for the holidays and winter tournaments for the basketball team.

"Which kids are going to be able to stay focused and handle the rigors?" he said. "It really helps bring you along and makes you tougher.  It's pretty intense for a short period of time. It's just two and a half weeks of really intense stuff and then it's done."

And soon enough, the season is done. Even if the players and coaches wanted to play more, there just isn't any time to do so. Between volleyball practice, summer vacation, volunteering at the St. Paul Rodeo and work, fitting 25 games in is impressive as is.

"Overall it was a very, very productive summer, and I thought the girls felt that way," Matlock said. "They came out really tired, but incredibly satisfied with what they had given, how much they improved and what they felt they could do going forward, and that's what you want from summer."

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