Grant Lucas

Steve Riper calls it a “misconception” that Central Oregon high school girls basketball is far inferior to the brand played in other — especially more populous — areas of the state.

Typically, the ninth-year Mountain View coach says, the usual suspects finish atop the Class 5A state regular-season rankings and advance to the Class 5A state tournament. Over the past three seasons, for instance, six teams have finished inside the state’s top 10 all three years, and three of those six teams have appeared all three years at the final site.

“Part of that, I think, is tradition,” Riper explains. “In a lot of ways, they (successful programs outside of Central Oregon) built it up, they’re popular, they’re successful. That helps bring players in. People always want to be part of something successful.”

In Central Oregon, building that tradition has been a struggle — and it is, in part, why teams from the more rural High Desert have struggled against teams from the Portland area and elsewhere in the more densely populated Willamette Valley. Central Oregon’s 2-7 record in the 5A state quarterfinals since 2007 reflects that disparity.

“It seems like you’re always fighting from behind,” Riper says, “unless you have one of those cyclical groups of kids that comes through, where you have more kids involved, they’re more serious about it, they’ve worked at it from a younger age.”

Tradition of success is key, but the difference in youth development between the east and west sides of the Cascade mountains is most noteworthy. As ninth-year Bend High coach Todd Ervin observes, there are more offseason camps, leagues and traveling teams — all vital elements in the development of young basketball players — available and accessible in the Valley than in Central Oregon.

“Our kids, and some do, go over the hills and play AAU and on travel teams and so forth,” Ervin says. “But I’m sure there’s some that possibly do it in one sport and doing it in another sport is a little too much, either financially or travelwise and timewise. So they have to pick. Two of my starters, one’s done it for volleyball and one’s done it for soccer. I would like to see them do it for basketball, but I know there’s constraints on trying to do it in more than one (sport).”

The area does benefit from the Central Oregon Basketball Organization, which has offered leagues, camps and skills training for fifth- through eighth-grade players since 2000 — though only in the past decade has COBO offered a girls-specific league, according to Craig Reid, the organization’s founder and director. Reid had lived in Seattle, where youth teams represented and served as feeders for local high schools. The premise, Reid recalls, was to field middle school teams that developed players and in general would channel those players to specific high schools. When Reid moved to Central Oregon in the 1990s, no such organization existed. So he got one going.

“The first thing I noticed here was there were a lot of good athletes,” says Reid, who was the Mountain View boys coach for 15 years before stepping down in 2015. “But there just wasn’t enough involvement for kids at a young enough age to help build the skills.”

Yet as valuable as COBO has been in helping players develop on the court, Riper says Central Oregon is still at a competitive disadvantage compared with its Willamette Valley foes. And with the three Bend high schools expected to join 6A next season, they are just trying to keep up.

“We need more than COBO,” Riper says. “What we need is to get middle school basketball back in to where it’s a true feeder system AND have COBO for the kids that REALLY want to be challenged and play at a higher level. … So much of it does have to do with distance, the inconvenience of it.”

For example, Riper notes, a Central Oregon youth team might participate in a three-day tournament across the mountains, in the Portland area, necessitating travel, food and lodging. The tourney field, however, is loaded with Valley teams whose players are traveling only an hour or less to compete and who can return each night to their own homes. “It’s just a lot easier” for those teams, Riper says.

“We’re kind of battling that isolation over on this side of the mountains,” he adds, “and everything takes place on the west side of the mountains when it comes to offseason tournaments and club ball stuff.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Valley’s dominance in girls basketball, however, is a wealth of basketball-first players. In Central Oregon, especially during the winter season, youngsters can choose from a wide variety of activities: cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, swimming and wrestling, not to mention programs for out-of-season sports such as soccer, volleyball and lacrosse. That array of options contributes to a relatively lukewarm interest in basketball, particularly for girls.

Because of the wide range of sports and other activities available to Central Oregon athletes, several girls basketball players who were expected to return to the hardwood this season chose not to so they could focus on training for other sports. And those who do decide to lace up the sneakers for basketball season often have another sport as their go-to. Take, for example, Ervin’s Bend High roster, which the coach says features athletes who compete in variety of other sports.

“We have to look at what the purpose is of what high school sports is trying to do,” Ervin says. “And to be honest, I’m absolutely thrilled that kids play multiple sports. … If you’re going to be just a basketball hotbed, I don’t know if you’re going to be a hotbed for anything else. I kind of like the situation I’m getting. I’ve got volleyball, cross-country, soccer, rugby, lacrosse kids on my team. I guess if I’m sacrificing (future NCAA Division I players), I don’t see it as much of a sacrifice.”

“I think COBO for both boys and girls is really providing the foundation for a high school program,” says Reid. “But in order to go to that next level, you need a handful of players that are basketball kids and that play (basketball) eight or nine months a year. I don’t think you should encourage that as your norm. Most kids are multi-sporters. But the reason you have success for volleyball and girls soccer is because kids are playing the sport eight or nine months a year. That’s just not the case here in Central Oregon (in basketball) on the girls side. There are very few, if any, that are playing outside of the November-to-February schedule. In these other areas, there’s girls who play basketball with the same level of commitment that you see here with soccer and volleyball.”

Reid points out that there is no shortage of talented players and strong athletes in Central Oregon, and over the past three years, he says, the number of young players participating in COBO girls basketball is growing. Yet because sports such as soccer and volleyball offer year-round club teams, “they really kind of monopolize a high percentage of the athletes. You see a lot of success in soccer and volleyball here, and it comes at the expense of girls basketball.”

That is not to say Central Oregon is unable to compete at the state level. Last season, Ervin’s Lava Bears advanced to the semifinals for the second time since 2012 — though those are Central Oregon’s only two appearances in the 5A penultimate round since the state expanded to six classifications 10 years ago.

Such is a reason why Riper would prefer seeing more basketball-specific opportunities in Central Oregon.

“Basketball’s a tough sport, in comparison to others,” the Mountain View coach says. “They’re all hard; I’m not trying to diminish that. But basketball’s a tough one to be good at. You can’t just show up as a sophomore who hasn’t played for three years and go, ‘Oh, I want to play basketball.’ You’re just so far behind everybody that it just can’t happen.”

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