It was tense, it was physical and it was a good old-fashioned rivalry when the Nestucca girls basketball team hosted Knappa in the first round of the League Playoffs Feb. 19.
In a season riddled with injuries for both teams, the Lady Cats entered the game still banged up according to head coach Tim Foster.
“It's tough because the girls play hard and sacrifice themselves for the team, and all it takes is coming down wrong, or diving for a loose ball and colliding with someone and they may be out for a couple games,” Foster said. “There is a bit of luck to staying healthy throughout a whole season, but when injuries do occur it gives other girls the opportunity to step up.”
Without starter Shamilee Chatelain against the Loggers, the Bobcats did have several girls who stepped up, including Kelsie Thurston.
“Shamilee checks a lot of boxes for us, and Kelsie made big contributions on both ends of the court,” Foster said.
Both teams started Wednesday’s game with hot shooting form the perimeter. While the Loggers stringed together multiple shots to take an early lead, the Bobcats relied on their three-point shot to keep it close. Knappa held a 14-12 lead after the first quarter.
Early in the game, the Bobcats seemed to feed off the energy of the home crowd. The home playoff game for Nestucca marked the first in several years for the girls basketball team.
“It was great to play at home,” Foster said. “Our girls have worked really hard to break into the top four in the league, so I was happy they got the opportunity to have a playoff game at home in front of their friends and family.”
In the second quarter, Knappa once again appear to be pulling away as they mounted a sizable lead. However, the Bobcat offense was sparked by Lauryn Dunn, who came off the bench in attack mode. Dunn scored on several drives to the basket, fighting through contact and converting free throws.
“Lauryn's played well the last couple weeks, she's also recovering from an ankle injury and I was glad she was able to play,” Foster said. “She's played her role really well.”
Going into the half, Nestucca still trailed 30-26.
In the third quarter, the whistles were running hot as both teams accumulated numerous fouls. After a big shot from Nestucca freshman Lyndie Hurliman late in the quarter, which cut Knappa’s lead to three, the Lady Cats earned a defensive stop that led to frustration from the Loggers. An intentional foul was issued and Olivia Leslie hit two free throws to cut the Knappa lead to 39-38.
With time ticking down and the ball in the Bobcats possession, Hurliman once again found some open space in the corner and knocked down a three-pointer to give Nestucca a 41-39 lead going into the fourth quarter.
“Lyndie is a shooter, so I thought if she got a couple good looks she could give us some points and she delivered,” Foster said.
Knappa found an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter however, and compiled 16 points. But the offensive prowess of Leslie and guard Kiara Webber kept Nestucca close, and the game was tied with less than a minute to go. Under a minute, the Loggers were able to convert and elbow jumper and a layup on the next possession to put the game away, eventually winning 55-49.
Leslie fouled out late in the game and received a standing ovation from the crowd on a milestone night, which she recorded a career high four blocks and her 1,000th career point in her final game.
“Olivia has had a great career, and has been our best player for arguably all four years she has been here,” Foster said. “Her production, but also her understanding of and love for the game is going to be hard to replace.”
The Bobcats also lose two other seniors in post Jocelyn Moreno and Veronica Chavarin, both of which have been key contributors to the Nestucca program.
“Jocelyn made huge strides to get to where she is and has been a starter for us the last two years… We'll really miss the joy that she brings to the gym everyday,” Foster said. “Veronica battled some injuries throughout her four years, but was a solid contributor for us, and one of the most supportive and encouraging girls on the team.
“I'll miss what they bring to the basketball court, but more so I'll miss having them around 'cause they are really great kids.”
Nestucca ends their 2019-20 season at 9-15 overall and 7-9 in league play. Despite the adversity this team faced with injuries, they competed in several close games, even against the best teams in the league. Foster said it was just a testament of their ‘never say die’ attitude.
“The girls constantly impressed me with their toughness, from the way they responded to injuries, to the way they would battle back in games and fight to the final seconds,” Foster said. “We are not the biggest or fastest team, but we get after it and that's at the core of who we are.”
Despite losing several talented players, Nestucca will likely bring back a seasoned and skilled roster for next year. Foster expects Chatelain to be among the leagues best players in her senior year, as she boasted a stat line of eight points per game and over four rebounds this season in 17 games.
In addition to Chatelain, the Lady Cats will have a stifiling defensive backcourt of Webber and Rachel Strober, who averaged 4.1 and three steals per game respectively this year.
“I think we have a strong group with a lot of varsity experience,” Foster said. “The goal each year is to keep taking steps forward, and I think we will be in a really good position to do that.”