By Dave Ball
The Mt. Hood Conference girls basketball landscape gained a measure of respect this past weekend with both Barlow and Clackamas reaching Saturday’s primetime session.
The Bruins settled for second-place honors after a 56-39 loss to top-seeded Beaverton, and Clackamas rallied to beat South Medford 59-54 to claim the third-place trophy.
“This is great for the Mt. Hood Conference,” Barlow coach Nick Hudson said. “Every league has their strong teams and their struggling teams, but sometimes it feels like we get overlooked.”
The league has only one state title to its credit, Central Catholic in 2013, so the state’s elite teams might not typically see MHC representatives as much of a threat. That looks to be changing with Clackamas (27-3) and Barlow (25-4) combining for seven regular-season wins over teams that qualified for the tournament.
“Getting that big-game experience was huge,” Hudson said. “All of our losses came against really quality programs, and some of those teams we were able to beat. We have a lot to be proud of.”
“It definitely gave us some confidence to beat some top-ranked teams from around the state — we were able to make our mark,” Clackamas coach Korey Landolt said.
While both teams organized a top-tier nonleague schedule, questions remained about the toughness of the conference top-to-bottom. The remaining teams in the MHC combined for an 11-45 (19.6%) record in nonleague play.
That led to some lopsided weeks in the league schedule. Over the final three weeks of the regular season, the Cavaliers’ closest challenge was a 32-point win over Central Catholic.
“We end up putting a bigger emphasis on practices during those weeks,” Landolt said. “We’re pushing each other and creating competitive situations with our time there.”
Barlow had a similar fate, with its closest challenge down the stretch coming in a 25-point win over Sandy.
“You aren’t looking past anyone, but you always have something that you are building toward and you don’t want to create bad habits,” Hudson said. “We saw our ranking drop toward the end of the season. You always find something to motivate you, and we had plenty of opportunity for that.”
It’s a bit like the Gonzaga complex in college basketball, where the experts question whether a mid-major conference prepares the Bulldogs for success on the big stage.
Barlow and Clackamas showed no signs of stage fright this postseason, each advancing to the state semifinals and finishing in primetime Saturday night.
The Cavaliers found themselves down seven to South Medford with 6:32 to play in the third-place game.
But Clackamas was not going to end its season with a loss.
Avery Peterson drove the baseline, floated under the net and came out the other side for a layup. Sara Barhoum knocked down 3-pointers on back-to-back trips, and Jazzy Davidson swished a triple from the top of the arc to tie the score with 2:38 left.
“We were fired up to come back against them,” Barhoum said. “We hit a couple shots and everyone got locked in — we flipped that switch.”
Dylan Mogel’s three-point play pushed the Cavaliers into the lead for good and free throws down the stretch sealed the victory.
“We didn’t want our season to end with a loss,” Peterson said. “Korey told us that we needed more energy, and we responded to that and came together.”
Barlow showed similar feistiness in Saturday’s championship game after falling behind 19-2 to Beaverton in the first quarter.
The Bruins found their stride in the second quarter and matched the top-seeded Beavers point-for-point, but still found themselves down 17 at the half.
“We just realized that we are capable of playing much better,” Barlow wing Annie Koenig said. “When you are down that much, you just have to take one possession at a time and chip away.”
The Bruins got a trio of 3-pointers by Koenig and Kennedie Shuler early in the second half to shrink the deficit to single digits and energize the crowd for the fourth quarter.
Among the most energized was a pack of Cavaliers who had gathered in the bleachers behind the hoop. They stood and clapped and hollered every time the Bruins put a shot through the net. Likewise, Barlow gathered in the same bleachers to watch Clackamas in its first game of the night.
Many players on both sides are members of the Northwest Select club, which has created connections that go beyond school colors.
“It’s great having another Mt. Hood team here, and we want to see them succeed,” Clackamas junior Eliza Buerk said. “Between the lines we go hard and it’s strictly business, but off the court we are all friends and it’s all love.”