Its Baker or bust for the Echo Cougars girls basketball team this season. Baker High School is the site of the 1A state championships.
The Cougars, third-place finishers in the Big Sky Conference a year ago, are coming off an 8-5 league record and a berth into the first round of the state tournament under former head coach Derrek Lete.
First year head coach JD Brazil said his transition has been smooth given he was an assistant coach under Lete at Echo for a number of years prior to taking the head job. Brazil said the continuity has helped him settle in.
Brazil is also familiar with many of his players. The Cougars have four returning seniors who earned valuable varsity experience last season. The Cougars have also added two transfers by way of Stanfield and Weston-McEwen.
Earlier this fall, Brazil said he hoped 20 girls would try out for the team, but had only expected about 15. As of Wednesday, the third day of practice, 22 players had tried out.
Its certainly more than I could have hoped for, he said. Its the highest number of girls weve had turn out since I started here at Echo.
Junior post Elizabeth McCarty agreed with Brazil.
Its great to see so many girls come out for the team, she said. It really helps build the program.
Brazil said entering the season he worried about generating enthusiasm for the girls basketball team given he doesnt work at the school. He said the current players on the team have done well in recruiting players to participate.
Its hard for me, not working at the school, to make sure everyone who wants to join the program is welcomed, he said. It sure seems that our current players are doing a great job of that.
Brazil said he is always happy with more players but it does present a challenge. This season, the Cougars will field a complete junior varsity team to go along with the varsity squad, and most schools in the Big Sky Conference dont have junior varsity clubs.
We are going to have to go out and search for teams to play, he said. I hope we can get our jayvee close to a full schedule.
The increase in numbers also presents another challenge for Brazil and the Echo coaching staff:?not enough gym time.
We are going to have to get creative, Brazil said. Well figure out a way to ensure everyone gets enough reps during each practice. Fortunately, Ive got a great staff, and Ill have a lot of help. Its going to come down to being effective at time management during practice. Its a problem I dont mind having.
Brazil said he hasnt seen this level of excitement from the team in his time with the program.
Everyone is pumped, he said. I think it has a lot to do with how we finished last year. We only made it to the first round of the state tournament, but it was a place this program hasnt been in a long time. Were really focused on getting to Baker.
Senior guard Lesley Ibarra echoed that sentiment.
We expect to go just as far as we did last season, Ibarra said. Our goal is to advance even further. Weve put a lot of work in over the summer and fall to prepare for this. We have a group of dedicated girls who want to make this happen.
The Cougars participated in summer leagues and had open gyms throughout the fall so they could hone their skills. McCarty said the summer league really helped the players mesh as a team.
With so many new players turning out, it was nice to get them in the gym early, she said. That helps build some continuity.
Many of the Cougar basketball players played volleyball for Echo in the fall. McCarty said going from volleyball to basketball season is an easy transition.
They are both team sports, she said. Volleyball keeps you active and in shape for basketball and vice versa.
While many of his coaching philosophies will remain the same, Brazil said he was going to add a new wrinkle in the way the team chooses its captains. The coaching staff will pick two permanent captains while the third captain position will be voted on by the team each week.
I want the girls to be able to recognize each other, he said. When someone works hard in practice and does everything theyre suppose to do to the best of their ability they should be rewarded for their efforts. Its an opportunity for anyone in the program to become a varsity captain.
The Cougars begin their season Dec. 5 when they travel to take on the Irrigon Knights.