The Intermountain girls basketball season will begin Jan. 8 and once again looks like a dogfight for the four playoff spots available. With the preseason nearing its end, which teams will be fighting for those four spots remains to be seen, but early indications are both of Umatilla County's representatives stand a good shot.
Here is where each team stands headed into their final two weeks of nonconference basketball:
HERMISTON BULLDOGS (4-0)
Though they've had to scrape just to get games in this season, the No. 13 ranked Bulldogs will enter their Jan. 8 game at Bend (2-6) on the shortest break of any IMC?team. Their game at Richland, Wash., Jan. 2 will keep them on the court in game situations while the rest of the teams have nothing but practice to look forward to.
Hermiston Head Coach Steve Hoffert enters his second year at the helm and said at the beginning of the year his girls are once again flying under the radar due to their youth.
A preseason in which they've outscored opponents by an average of 66-41 and their new ranking should change that, but with a healthy and deep bench, the Bulldogs should still be a top contender for not only a playoff spot but a title as well -?even with targets on their backs.
The Bulldogs have found offense from nearly every player they've thrown on the court this season and while it is fun to see which girls will answer the call from night to night, two constants have been sophomore guard Maloree Moss and senior wing Kayleigh Barnitz.
Moss is averaging 16 points a night with a high game of 22 while Barnitz is second on the team in scoring with a high game of 17.
PENDLETON? BUCKAROOS (6-0)
Pendleton joins Hermiston as the only undefeated team in the IMC?through the preseason, and though they have yet to face another Oregon Class 5A?team this season, an appearance at the South Albany Pink Ribbon Tournament Dec. 29-30 should fix that.
Even with no Class 5A?victories under their belt, the Bucks' 65-42 average win margin is impressive and ranks second in the league only to Hermiston.
The Bucks finished a game out of the playoffs last season and return four key pieces from that team. How they fare in the IMC?will depend largely on how quickly the other girls on the team will understand exactly what third-year Head Coach Ryan Sams is looking for from them.
Pendleton lacks the depth of a team like Hermiston so there will be points in the season, especially on some of those trips to Bend and Prineville, when the Bucks will need to get production from some unusual suspects to stay on track.
Senior post Kristen VanCleave is averaging 25 points a game, twice going over 30, and is the team's top rebounder as well. Junior guard Jessica Simpson also averages nearly 17 points a game with a high of 26. With sophomore wing Jory Spencer battling injury, junior Nelly Arroyo has made a strong case for more playing time while defensive specialist Kelli Demianew has shown the ability to hit double digits in scoring.
THE DALLES-WAHTONKA EAGLE?INDIANS (4-1)
The Eagle Indians finished dead last in the IMC?last season with a 1-13 conference record while averaging just 38 points a game.
Even though they are 2-0 against Class 5A?opponents this season it could be a stretch to consider them a playoff contender just yet. However, they have upped their scoring average to 49 points so far this year and their 53-32 win over La Grande Dec. 19 is a similar score to Pendleton's first win against the Tigers so there is reason for some optimism in The Dalles.
Senior point guard Nadia Telles is back leading the team while sophomore Kelsey Martinson has been a nice addition to the varsity roster at guard. The Eagle Indians do not have much height and they probably won't be able to run with everybody, meaning the key to making the playoffs for them could end up being the play of 5-foot-11 junior post Sydney Hege and 5-foot-9 junior post Makenzie Ellett.
MADRAS? WHITE?BUFFALOES (5-2)
The White Buffaloes also finished out of the playoffs a season ago but did win five games in the IMC. A?slight improvement this season could be all they need to get over the hump and break into the top four.
Madras traditionally has been a fast-tempo team but it is sophomore 6-foot post Abby Scott that has led them in scoring this season, giving Madras a solid inside threat. She averages 13 points a game.
Seniors Karlen Yallup and Kristi Olney also are off to fast starts while newcomer Klesia Plazola has shown the ability to break 20 points in a game. Madras will need to find some defensive help somewhere, though, as their 46 points given up a game average is highest in the league.
MOUNTAIN VIEW?COUGARS (3-2)
The Cougars are another team looking to go from the back of the pack to the front in the new season. Transfer junior Jordan Wilcox leads the team with a 12-point per game average but the Cougars have found their most success when they spread the ball around.
Wilcox scored 17 points in a 42-39 loss to Redmond Dec. 15 but when the Cougars get at least two players into double digits their record is 3-0. Lacy Mayhew, Hopper Cashman, Karri Heacock and Jordan's twin sister Kersey Wilcox also have scored double digits in a game this season, all but Kersey doing so in their 66-20 win over Mazama Dec. 18.
The Bucks' first league opponent, the Cougars are 3-1 against Class 5A teams this season and are outscoring opponents at an average of 50-36.
CROOK?COUNTY? COWGIRLS (2-2)
The question in Prineville as the IMC?season approaches has to be how much has the Wilcox sisters' move to Mountain View hurt the Cowgirls' chances of making a repeat appearance in the playoffs?
The second-place team from last season, the Cowgirls have been anything but consistent this season. They started the year with a 61-47 win over Redmond, but lost their most recent outing to Class 2A?Sisters 40-34.
The Cowgirls were without their leading scorer, junior wing Danni Severance and her 17-point average in the game, but in a long season the team won't be able to fall back on her every night. New to the varsity this season, sophomore guard Brooke Buswell has become a solid option while Channele Fulton also has helped bolster a roster that lost five seniors.
Reigning champions, the Storm are the only other ranked IMC?team at No. 12, but have seen their share of struggles early. The Storm are only outscoring opponents by an average of two points a game and have lost two heartbreakers - 54-53 at South Medford and 44-42 (OT)?at North Medford.
Their road record is 0-3 so getting better play in hostile territory will be a must.
Senior guard Jesse Luersen leads a balanced attack that includes junior forward Katie Benedikt and senior guard Becky Defoe. Newcomer Chelsie Schoenborn had her best game of the season by far in a Dec. 19 win over Marshfield with 20 points in a game Luersen missed.
The Lava Bears opened the season with a two-game winning streak but it has been all downhill from there as last year's third-place team will enter their next game on a six-game skid. The Lava Bears are being outscored by an average of 45-44 but only one of their six losses was by a single basket.
Bend, which graduated five seniors, has the most experience this season against Class 5A?teams with a 2-3 record.
Junior 6-foot-1 post Karleigh Taylor has been the only consistent scoring threat for the Lava Bears this season going for 17 points a game. In their losing streak the Lava Bears have had more than one player score in double digits just twice. Other than Taylor, only senior point guard Amelia Salazar and sophomore post Ally McConnell have hit double digits in more than one game and each of them did it just twice.