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PREP FOCUS: Falcons will be tough to beat in 2014

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Morgan McSmith puts up a shot in last year's Tri-Valley Conference home game with Madras. Sporting a veteran lineup that includes a host of experienced players from last year's team that placed fourth at state, the Falcons plan on making a run at a state title this winter.The La Salle Falcons have a target on their backs as they gear up for the 2014 Tri-Valley Conference girls basketball title chase.

The Falcons return nearly everybody from last year’s team that went 10-0 in the Tri-Valley Conference and placed fourth at state. And they’ve added a talented player in 5-8 freshman Aleah Goodman. She’s replaced two-year starter Allison Ilg as the Falcons’ starting point guard.

“She’s a good, solid all-around player,” senior co-captain Andrea Novak says. “She’s a really strong defensive player. She’s a good ball-handler and passer, and she’s able to score, too.”

“I think our depth is even better [than last season],” La Salle coach Kelli Wedin says. “We have a season under our belts, and the girls have a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to do. We’re a lot better at this point in the season than we were last year.”

The state’s coaches expect big things from the Falcons. They’ve ranked La Salle the top Class 4A team.

“I think we have an opportunity to get back to Gil [Coliseum] and compete for the [state] title,” Wedin says.

The Falcons showed signs last summer that they were going to be good. Playing in a tournament that included several top 6A teams — such as Oregon City, South Medford and Tigard — the Falcons held their own.

“We beat Prairie, Newberg and Southridge [at the Newberg tournament],” Wedin says. “We lost to Tigard, but we competed — a six- or seven-point game. And [we played in the tournament] without Aleah or Allison. It was point guard by committee.”

Top returnees for the Falcons include Ilg, 5-8 senior wing Sterling Swift, 5-10 senior post Andrea Novak, 5-9 senior wing Morgan McSmith, 6-0 senior post Katie Buerk and 5-7 junior post/wing Makenzie Cook.

A four-year starter, Swift was all-conference a year ago, along with McSmith.

Novak and Ilg received honorable mention, along with Cook, in last year’s conference all-star balloting.

Buerk saw a considerable amount of varsity playing time a year ago, and she has earned the nod as a starter this winter.

The Falcons return three other players who saw a considerable amount of playing time a year ago: senior Courtney Crain (5-5 wing); junior Tori Goodman (5-10 post/wing) and sophomore Ally Jansen (5-9 wing).

Rounding out this season’s varsity roster are senior Mattie Portash (5-9 post) and sophomore Shannon Tran (5-7 point guard).

The Falcons have been dominant in early preseason, going 5-0, with relatively easy wins over Stayton (88-45), Valley Catholic (61-39), Banks (62-37), Cascade (91-55) and Scappoose (80-46).

Aleah Goodman scored 19 points and Novak scored 17 to lead the charge against Stayton; Novak (14 points) led the way against Banks: Swift (17 points) headed a balance attack in the rout of Valley Catholic.

Aleah Goodman (18 points) led five players in double figures in the road win over the Cougars.

Valley Catholic is the defending state champion in Class 3A; Banks played La Salle in the fourth-place final of last year’s state tournament, losing 48-36.

The rout of Cascade avenged losses to the Cougars at last year’s state tournament and in the state final in 2011.

“We ran [Cascade] out of the gym,” Swift says. “They couldn’t keep up. We got some redemption. ... We went 28-1 when they beat us in the final [in 2011]. We have some unfinished business to take care of [this season].”

“Our goal is to finish strong in the playoffs so we can go strong into state and hopefully win a state championship,” Novak says.

Despite her team’s experience and success in preseason, Wedin says her charges may have their work cut out for them as they attempt to defend their title in the TVC.

“Madras is going to be tough again,” she says. “They return (all-conference playmaking guard Maria) Stacona. And I hear they have a couple of transfers. And Gladstone returns most of its roster.

“I feel like we’re going to have to play our best every night, because everyone is going to give us their best. We have a target on our backs.”

Madras was ranked ninth in last week’s 4A coaches poll.

Gladstone and Madras both went 7-3 and tied for second in the TVC last season.

Asked who she expects to be La Salle’s toughest competition in league, Novak said, “Definitely Madras. They have a couple of really good guards, plus a couple of transfers. And we always have a tough time at their place.”

Next up for the Falcons is a tournament Jan. 2-4 in Sisters.

La Salle opens TVC play on Jan. 21, playing Gladstone on the road.