Spartans stand alone.
WHEN JUNCTION CITY girls basketball coach Craig Lannom suggests that Marist `is in a different world' from the rest of the Sky-Em League, he is not engaging in hyperbole.
The numbers tell the story:
The top-ranked Spartans have won 76 consecutive Sky-Em League games and five straight conference crowns. They haven't lost in league since Feb. 19, 1996, when they dropped a 48-41 decision in overtime to Junction City.
Marist has made 24 trips in succession to the Class 3A state tournament dating back to 1978. The rest of the league has combined to make 26 state appearances. Marist's crowded trophy case includes three state championships - 1996, '97 and '99 - among 17 pieces of tourney hardware. The other Sky-Em schools have six trophies.
`This is my 13th year at Junction City, and the beat goes on,' Lannom said. `Nobody has the numbers, quality or depth that Marist does. I don't see anybody touching them. They're in a different world than the rest of the league.'
To nobody's surprise, the Sky-Em coaches made the Spartans a unanimous pick to claim their sixth straight league title in The Register-Guard's preseason poll. Sutherlin and Junction City are expected to duke it out for second place, with the rest of the teams scrambling for a spot in the league playoffs.
`Sometimes you have to be the bug on the windshield, and that's what happens when you play Marist,' Cottage Grove coach Jan Jacobs said, quoting a former Sky-Em coach.
`Marist is the obvious front-runner and that won't change,' Pleasant Hill coach Bill Neal added. `It's disheartening to the rest of us - to have no chance for first.'
Marist has already served notice that this year's group could be one of its strongest.
The Spartans opened their season with a 61-29 victory over Wilsonville, the reigning 3A state champion led by Arizona State recruit Jill Noe. Marist's patented matchup zone defense held Noe to one basket and four points on the night.
`That game blew me out of the water,' said Bethany Hartle, Creswell's first-year coach. `Noe is a Division I recruit, and what they did to her scares everybody.'
Four seniors represent the nucleus for Marist this year - Kate Saltmarsh, Ashley Chester, Angie Sammons and Sally Moore. They are all big, strong and athletic, and they take nothing for granted.
The leader in intensity is Saltmarsh, a 5-foot-10 wing, who has signed with the University of Nevada, owns a black belt in karate and was chosen the most valuable player of the league as a junior last season.
`We have to take every game like it's our last,' Saltmarsh said. `When I was a sophomore, we came into Creswell and we weren't focused. They gave us quite a surprise, and that taught us a lesson. ... This is a tough league, and we can't overlook anybody.'
Chester, a 6-1 post, also returns as a first-team all-league selection, while the 5-10 Moore and 5-11 Sammons both received honorable mention.
`We're humble,' said Moore, who was sidelined with mononucleosis one day before the state tournament last year. `We're pretty much even all the way down the roster, and our practices keep us in check.'
Junior Stephanie Singer, a 5-8 point guard, rounds out the starting five, and the bench boasts its usual quality with juniors Christine Paiement (5-11), Heidi Hoffman (5-7) and Alyson Lande (5-6). The newcomers to the varsity are juniors Alex Murphy (5-7) and Brittany Moos (5-8), and sophomores Jessie Moore (5-4), Ashley Weber (6-1) and Sarah Long (5-11).
Without an abundance of high-level 3A competition in Oregon, Marist typically heads south to California for the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions prior to the winter break, and they will do so again this week. The 14-team tourney opens Wednesday and concludes Saturday.
Marist also will take part in the 2001 adidas-Laker Interstate Shootout Tournament - a 32-team extravaganza split into two 16-team divisions - played at Lake Oswego and Tigard high schools, Dec. 26-29. The Spartans, who open with Lakeridge, are the lone 3A team in their bracket.
That's a challenging stretch of eight games in 11 days against outstanding teams. Marist is able to play in both tournaments because La Pine decided to drop out of the Sky-Em for one season and play an independent schedule this year, thus pushing back the league openers to Thursday, Jan. 3.
`The tournaments are a lot of fun. We play a lot of different teams, and they prepare us well for the rest of the season,' Saltmarsh said. `When you play together on the road for two weeks, it helps team bonding.'
Not that this group needs much help.
It's one of Terry Lande's most experienced teams, even though last year's fourth-place performance at state ranks as the worst finish during his seven seasons as head coach.
`The main thing is these kids have all played a lot of basketball together during the season and the summer,' Lande said. `We have quite a few kids who can score, and it's a group that understands the defense we try to play. More and more, they are reacting as opposed to thinking about things.'
The most likely contenders in the battle for second place are Sutherlin, Junction City and Cottage Grove.
Although hit hard by graduation, the Tigers and Lions both reached the Sweet 16 in Corvallis last season, and the hunger for a return visit remains strong. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have three starters back, including 5-3 junior point guard Ashley Lee, a first-team all-league selection.
`I think Sutherlin is ready to step up and make some noise,' Jacobs said.
Lee will have two sets of identical twins to work with - 5-9 seniors Marcy and Megan Drake, and 5-8 sophomores Jamie and Jennifer Denley. To further confuse coach Gary Olson, sophomore Beth Denley is a cousin.
Junction City returns four seniors, led by 5-3 guard Jennifer Campbell, a second-team all-league pick last year, who scored 22 points in the Tigers' 47-45 overtime loss to Siuslaw in the championship game of the Junction City/Pleasant Hill holiday tournament on Saturday.
The Lions, with 6-2 junior post Wendy Levings-Matson in the middle and seniors Jessica Martin and Danielle Ewing on the perimeter, are off to a 4-2 start.
Coaches Rate the Sky-Em League
1. Marist The beat goes on for deep, focused and talented Spartans.
2. Sutherlin Two sets of twins join talented point guard Ashley Lee.
3. Junction City Tigers need patience to reach goal of return trip to state.
4. Cottage Grove Lions might surprise with athletic blend of young and old.
5. Elmira Young Falcons ready to focus on defense this season.
6. Pleasant Hill Billies a work in progress without McVey in the lineup.
7. Glide Wildcats seek spot in league playoffs despite no seniors.
8. Creswell First-year coach hopes to lay foundation for solid program.
Marist is a veteran squad this season with seniors (from left) Ashley Chester, Kate Saltmarsh, Sally Moore and Angie Sammons. Terry Lande's team hasn't lost a league game since 1996. MATT ANDERSON / The Register-Guard League MVP Kate Saltmarsh (left) returns for Marist.