McNary’s Paige Downer pushes the ball up the court after making a steal during practice. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

McNary’s Paige Downer pushes the ball up the court after making a steal during practice. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Derick Handley is ready for the Keizer community to get excited about Lady Celt varsity basketball.

“If we perform to the level we’re capable of, and take care of the things we need to take care of, we could have two league champion teams at this school. That doesn’t happen too often. Our girls are working hard and they deserve the support,” said Handley, the second-year head coach of the team.

The McNary girls return to the hardwood with a home game vs. Sheldon High School Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 6:45 p.m.

Leading the team this season are a trio of seniors, Kaelie Flores, Madi Hingston and Reina Strand. Flores and Hingston have already signed letters of intent to play for Central Washington University and Seattle Pacific University, respectively. Strand, who sat out her junior year due to injury, expects to find a home by next spring.

Returning junior Sydney Hunter said the seniors are a big part of the team’s overall look this season.

“This year is a big one for us and I feel like we’re going to play for them,” said Hunter.

Last year, the Lady Celts finished third in the Greater Valley Conference and lost to Clackamas High School in the first round of the playoffs. This time around, Handley said the team stacks up well against last year’s league champs, West Albany High School, and the South Salem High School Saxons, who took second in the conference.

“We are just so athletic, we have a lot of length, a lot of speed, and a lot of size. In all five positions, we have someone who can outrun the opponent up and down the court,” Handley said.

The team spent the first two days of practice working solely on defensive techniques and strategies and, three days later, it was already paying dividends.

“We have a much more aggressive mindset at this point in the season than we did at the same time last season,” Handley said. “Our scrimmages are much tougher with a lot more pressure on the ball.”

“Our defense is going to be hard to stop. Once we master it, we’ll be really good,” Hunter added.

On offense, Strand said the team is coming along equally well.

“We’re running similar stuff to last year, which means we’re reviewing, but it’s coming along really quickly,” Strand said. “Everyone is picking up the new plays, too.”

Handley said the team was still a bit “sloppy,” but credited the players for not hesitating when it came to shooting. His marching orders for the team’s three seniors is to help clean up the finer points of execution.

“These girls are naturally gifted as players, but the entire program is not as fortunate. We want to see a lot of encouragement coming from them and a lot of help for the younger players who may not be quite there yet,” he said.

Handley had high hopes for a number of freshmen and underclassmen set to receive varsity playing time this season, and expects them to rise to the challenge.

“It’s going to be a trial by fire, but we’re looking for who can step up mentally. We also want them to play with confidence knowing that they belong as part of the varsity team,” Handley said.

As far as the GVC opposition goes, Handley expected South Salem High School to be a leading contender for the league title followed by West Salem High School, but he is also interested to see how  Forest Grove High School’s team has grown.

“(Forest Grove) had a lot of talented, young athletes last year and I’m curious to see how they’ve developed,” he said.

Looking ahead to the first games of the season, Strand wanted the team to come away with more than just wins.

“I want to see us really executing the offense and defense. We’re good at figuring out ways to score, but defense is going to win the games,” she said.