Grant Lucas

Reputation preceded Bend High heading into this girls basketball season, a track record that even some Lava Bears were uncertain they would measure up to.

After all, Bend had been a mainstay at the Class 5A state tournament, making seven appearances over 10 years. Last season, the Lava Bears won a quarterfinal game for just the second time in program history, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion La Salle and placing fifth to match Bend’s best finish ever while claiming its third-ever state trophy.

The Bears had proved their ability to contend with programs from the Willamette Valley.

But coming into the 2017-18 season, Bend’s prospects were uncertain. Bend had graduated its Intermountain Conference co-players of the year, guard Tayla Wheeler and post Sophia Jackson, and was asking a number of younger, inexperienced players to fill the void.

“We didn’t know going into the season what it was going to look like,” recalls Bend senior forward Kayla Rambo.

“I knew we were capable of doing really well and playing really well together,” says Bears senior forward Cambree Scott, the IMC player of the year this season. “But we just needed a couple things to come together. And, wow, it’s REALLY coming together.”

Whatever doubts existed three months ago are gone. Maybe it was the long season, in which Bend — for the sixth time in seven years — finished atop the IMC standings. Perhaps it simply took patience, as the Bears (21-4 overall) were a modest 5-3 through their first eight games before eventually earning yet another trip to the state tournament, which begins with a Tuesday quarterfinal matchup against No. 3 Central at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis.

To hear the Lava Bears tell it, though, it was not just about them taking time to jell, but also spending time together. They had lunches together. On Saturdays during football season they would head to the house of ninth-year Bend coach Todd Ervin for breakfast before hanging out to watch Oregon State play on TV.

Jackson’s graduation left Bend without an offensive centerpiece. The team’s floor general, Wheeler, was also gone. In stepped seasoned seniors Kylee Roath, Scott and Rambo, leading a mix of other returning players and varsity newcomers.

The Bears were rebuilding, and they knew it. Yet it would not be an excuse.

“We knew we had to make sure we filled in those positions,” Roath says. “Not just with one player. We didn’t have that one amazing shooter or anything. We just knew that if we wanted to go far in the season, we had to work together to do it.”

Bend started fast, winning its first four games, then stumbled immediately after with three losses in a four-game stretch, beginning with a 14-point loss at Lebanon followed by two setbacks against teams that later would join the Bears in the state tournament field.

Defense has long been a staple of Ervin’s teams. That end of the floor is the starting point for Bend’s offense. And during a stretch back in December, defense was the only thing working.

“I feel like our defense is what was winning us games in the beginning (of the season) and our offense wasn’t quite there yet,” Rambo remembers. “Our defense is what we were dominating the court with. We were like, ‘If we play this type of defense, we can set the tone for every game.’”

Rambo recalls Ervin addressing the team’s seniors, noting that this Lava Bears squad — perhaps more than any team before — needed to be a cohesive unit, especially since the Bears did not boast potent offensive weapons (at least, not yet).

“Once our offense started clicking,” Rambo says, “we turned into, like, an almost unbeatable team.”

Indeed they have. In fact, the Lava Bears have won 16 of 17 games since opening the season 5-3. They head into the state tournament having won 12 straight, including their past seven games by an average of 23.7 points.

“This team has gone an amazing distance,” Rambo lauds. She adds: “Our team bonded so well throughout the season, and how we bonded off the court really shows how we play on the court. We really had to focus on that, because we were kind of disconnected as a team. But when we came together, it started showing in practice. And when the ball started rolling, we just kept going with it.”

The No. 6 playoff seed, Bend enters the state tourney ranked seventh in 5A with 51.4 points per game even without a star scorer. One game, it could be Scott (averaging 13 points and 8.7 rebounds per game) leading the Lava Bears, and perhaps it is Roath (8.7 points, four boards, two assists, two steals) the next game. Maybe Kaycee Brown (6.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, two assists, two steals) takes over one quarter for Bend, and then it is Rambo (6.0 points, 4.8 boards) the next period and Caitlin Wheeler (5.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) the next. Offensive options abound.

“It’s nice that you can give it to anybody and we’re all capable of taking care of the ball,” Scott says. “It’s also built us closer as a team because we really trust each other.”

“Defense has kind of been our key, because it sets up what we want to do offensively,” says Ervin, whose team has allowed the fifth-fewest points per game (36.8) in 5A this season. “I’ve watched teams at the state tournament maybe not win but certainly compete that play really good defense. And we have good enough athletes. It’s just a question of working at it as a team and taking pride in it.”

From Bend’s first loss of the season — that 14-point loss at Lebanon — to its latest victory — a 27-point home playoff victory over that same Lebanon team — the Lava Bears’ growth through the season is apparent. Ervin understandably is excited to take this crew to the state tournament to test its mettle against the top teams in 5A. Ervin adds that Bend is still “pretty inexperienced,” but the dominant stretch of victories has the Lava Bears rolling.

In the program’s sixth appearance at the final site in seven years, the Bears are looking first to advance to the semifinals as they did last year. Perhaps even advance to their first state championship game.

After all, Scott says, “we’re really clicking. And we’re just playing out of our minds.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com .

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