Good luck chicken helps Pine-Eagle soar
By GERRY STEELE
Of the Baker City Herald
Tucked away in the extreme northeast corner of Baker County, the small hamlet of Halfway is the home of one of the best Class 1A girls basketball teams in Oregon.
Pine-Eagle (27-0), the top-ranked 1A girls team in the state, can make that claim after defeating the previous No. 1-ranked Crane Mustangs in the District 4-1A championship game last month. Now the Spartans, who made the move from the Class 2A ranks last year, will attempt to defend their current ranking at the 1A state tournament this week at Baker High School.
The Spartans, who have a 53-2 record the past two seasons, opened tournament play today at 1:30 p.m. against fourth-ranked Damascus Christian.
Pine-Eagle qualified for the tournament after defeating a physical Condon team Saturday at Halfway in the first round of the state playoffs.
Good luck chicken
Pine-Eagle players are hoping that their "good luck chicken" will once again provide them with luck they need to advance.
"The key to our team is our chicken," said junior guard Jesse Baxter.
The chicken, explained Coach Roger Gulick, is a miniature rubber chicken, much like the ones used in comedy stage routines.
"It started a couple years ago with Stephanie Petersen," Gulick said. "Now before and after every Continued from Page 1
game all the kids have to take a pull on the chicken."
Most of the players on this year's team have played together from as far back as the fifth- and sixth-grade, and in YMCA ball.
The last time Pine-Eagle earned a Class 1A state girls title, 1994, most of the members of the current roster were in Grades 1-3. Only one or two remembered much about that team of 11 years ago.
"I watched the game," said senior Lila Forte. "But I don't remember a lot about it."
Gulick, who has coached at Pine-Eagle in one capacity or another for several years, remembers the 1994 team, as well as the 1984 team that captured the Class 2A crown in Pendleton.
"I was around for both title games," he said. "I'd say with the evolution of basketball out here, this is overall the best team of the three."
What drives the Spartans?
What makes this team that good?
"We're all friends off the court, so we can read each others' minds," said senior Rena Olson, drawing a chuckle from many of her teammates.
"It's a group," Gulick said. "They have one goal, winning the championship. But they're taking it one game at a time."
Sophomore J.J. Shevham echoed her coach's statement when asked what the Spartans were looking at next.
"Damascus for starters," she said. "We have to take one game at a time. Then, Dufur because it's a funny name."
If Pine-Eagle can defeat Damascus Christian, the Spartans would play the winner of today's Dufur-Lowell contest in the semifinals.
The Spartan players were split on what it is like to play at the 1A level compared to the 2A level.
"The biggest difference, I think, is that people care at this level," said junior Britney Gulick. "The fans seem more involved in the games. There's more excitement. I've made a lot of friends."
Shevham saw it differently.
"I don't see that much difference between 2A and 1A," she said. "On the floor its still five on five. Skillwise both are about the same."
Coach Gulick noted that many fans say Pine-Eagle plays "2A ball," but it doesn't matter to him.
"Yea, we're coming out of the 2A level, but it's the intensity this group has brought with it that is the key," he said.
The fact that the Spartans will be playing in a larger gym hasn't fazed the players.
"It's just another gym with more seats," chimed in senior Abby Morrison.
Counting district and an earlier preseason tournament, the Spartans have played six games on the Baker floor already. They're hoping for three more.
A natural comparison
Comparing this year's team with the 1984 and 1994 teams was inevitable.
"Roger really wanted to win the 2A tourney last year to keep the 10-year cycle going," said Chuck Peterson, the coach of the 1994 champions.
Peterson said the comparisons might be unfair.
"Every year is different," said Peterson, who lives in the Halfway area. "Every year takes a certain degree of luck. You have to have everything together and hope the ball goes in the hoop."
Peterson, who also was coaching at Pine-Eagle in 1984 when Denny Oliver led his team to the 2A title, said this year's team is probably more like Oliver's team.
"Both were up there in the rankings, and both have several players to go to," he said. "My team wasn't favored at all. We just lucked out."
Peterson said the two earlier teams each had one player they could rely on to consistently score in double figures.
"Denny had Liz Gulick, and we had Didi (Elguezabal)," Peterson said. "With Roger's team you never know who will (lead the team in scoring) on a given night."
Peterson said the Spartans could go to any one of four or five players as their leading scorer on a given night. He said Forte and senior point guard Molly Coffee are probably the most obvious choices to score in double figures most regularly. But, he added, Shevham, Morrison and Gulick also can hit double digits on any given night.
"This team is very determined. It's been a fun team to watch," Peterson said. "Molly Coffee is one of the best passing guards I've ever seen."
Peterson also acknowledged that the girls' game as a whole has gotten better over the years.
But, he said it still comes down to walking the walk, and not just talking the talk.
"You can do all the talking you want, but you just have to do it on the floor. At the state level, everybody has earned the right to be here, so it also takes a certain degree of luck," Peterson said.