Defense key to St. Paul's fast start
In the past two seasons, there has been no better defensive team in the Tri-River Conference than the St. Paul Buckaroos.
But despite well-worn adage that defense wins championships, St. Paul has yet to qualify for the state playoffs, let alone sniff the quarterfinal tournament. That's no shot at the Bucks, who have been among the top teams in the state in the past two years, but rather an indicator of just how good the Tri-River is every year.
"It's so tough to win every night in the Tri-River," SPHS coach Dave Matlock said. "A lot of times it's not something the kids did wrong or (are) not executing, it's just something that happens when you're up against a tough league with great competition every night."
Last year was no different. The Tri-River Conference qualified four teams for the eight-team state tournament in Pendleton; they all finished with a trophy at the end of the season. St. Paul likely could have held its own against that competition, but the maximum number of teams the one league could qualify for the state playoffs last year was four and the Bucks finished fifth.
"We were equally as good as those teams almost, just the odd man out," Matlock said. "How many times do you see four league teams going to the state tournament?"
The Bucks are once again determined to prove they belong among the elite 2A programs in the state and with five wins in as many games, the early returns are positive.
St. Paul is coming off a pair of decisive victories in Southwest Christian School's annual Wildcat Challenge tournament Friday and Saturday in Beaverton. The Bucks faced few challenges in dispatching New Hope Christian and the host Wildcats, winning by margins of 52-7 and 55-18, respectively.
The wins continued a hot start in which St. Paul has held opponents to an average of 20 points a game.
"We've been the leader in giving up the fewest points in the Tri-River when factoring in all 24 games in the past two years," Matlock said. "That was a goal of the team this year, to continue that and be the best defensive team in the Tri-River."
If any criticism can be leveled against the Bucks, it's that they've been unable to keep pace at the other end of the court. That's where this year's team has been different, at least so far.
St. Paul eclipsed 50 points just three times in 24 outings last season, but the Bucks have already matched that total through first five games this winter.
"Offensively this year, we're more efficient and shooting the ball better," Matlock said. "I think that's just the growth and maturity of working hard through summer ball and skill drills."
Another major factor, however, has been the move of all-conference performer Erin Counts from the post to the perimeter, where she can initiate the offense. The move has had a trickledown effect on the rest of the team, allowing other players to take advantage of their individual strengths, like Emma Connor's penchant for crashing the boards.
"She is very gifted with handling the ball and she has great court vision and handling on her passes," Matlock said of Counts. "I want to play her a lot at guard this year because she has that ability to make everyone around her better."
The move has also freed up more space for sophomore post Isabelle Wyss to work closer to the basket without the rest of the team clogging up the paint.
"When Erin draws attention and is able to create shots for people, Isabelle has that space in the middle to get open and Emma is feeding off of that," Matlock said.
With the league opener against Kennedy, as well as games versus defending 2A state champion Monroe and Lost River next week, St. Paul will tested to see just how much they belong in the conversation among the top 2A teams in the state.
"These are games that are a real barometer for us to see if we're the caliber of those final eight teams that we want to get to in Pendleton," Matlock said. "This is our last shot at 2A, so there's really an urgency about our desire to go out there and do that."