South Eugene team comes on strong

It has been 10 seasons since a girls' basketball team from outside the Portland, Ore., metro area has won Oregon's large class state trophy. Nine of those 10 were won by either Oregon City (Oregon City, Ore.) to the East or Southridge (Beaverton, Ore.) to the West.

In 1999, it was South Eugene (Eugene, Ore.), claiming the 4A title against St. Mary's (Beaverton). Since 1987, when South Eugene won the 3A state title, the trophy has left the Portland area just three times -- South Eugene's two championships and a 1989 3A title by North Eugene.

Since the current Axemen were born, the 1999 title has been the only one to leave the Portland area. The team knows that if they want to end the dominance, they'll have to put in the work in December. Work started with the Nike Northwest Invitational and continues this week, as they face Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) in Thursday's first round of the top division, the Joe Smith, at the Nike Tournament of Champions.

"That's why we scheduled like we did this year," Eastman said. "We need to see this level of competition."

Once South Eugene returns home from the TOC and plays a non-league game at Southridge, the Axemen will face their usual Southwest Conference rivals in a league that has struggled to maintain a tough level of competition. From there, it's a playoff run and a state bracket that could have them face any number of teams in the first round, including an Oregon City or a Southridge.

After losing 46-37 to Oregon City for the 2009 title, the Axemen sought more challenges to prepare them for the eventual onslaught of Portland-area powers, teams that have a larger pool of opponents to draw from during the season.

"We made it our goals to be league champions and state champions this year," said Mackenzie Kerins, a 6-foot-1 senior. "We set the same goals last year, but it's something that, since we made it to the tournament last year and we were right there, we feel it's in our grasp and we're ready for it."

The South Eugene girls definitely have a grasp on what they can handle as a team. The three seniors, headed by Kerins, have played together since they were in kindergarten, while the six juniors at the core of the squad have also played together since their wee days. With practice six days a week, and impromptu team meals and sleepovers, sometimes the only time the girls spend apart is when they're in different classes.

"Literally, everyone's just best friends on our team," Kerins said. "On the court, we don't really bicker with each other. We see other teams get into it. Even at school, it's just like, 'Ohmigod, team!' when we see each other."

For Eastman and assistant coaches Miranda Carpenter and Lanina Russell, it's a welcome sight. In his third year at the helm, Eastman knows this is a special group, especially after spending the previous 11 seasons as an assistant in the program. He took on head coaching duties in 2007, when Jim Denker, who coached both state title teams, left after 25 years at the helm.

"It's one of those intangibles, chemistry," Eastman said. "Either you have it or you don't. When you really have it, you can't describe it. You know you have it, and you don't really know what all the factors are that made you get it."

In their opening test of wills at the Nike Northwest Invitational, the Axemen were faced with then-No. 8 Potter's House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.), a team that some expected to roll right over South Eugene. And although the Lions took a 64-49 win, the Axemen's only flaw was a 26-9 first quarter that they couldn't recover from, despite outscoring or staying right with Potter's House the final three quarters.

Two close but good wins the following days, against Jesuit and Central Catholic, both from Portland, put the Axemen back on the winning track and showed what they're capable of doing on the court, with a different leading scorer every game and different heroes in the two close wins. With Roberts running the point, Kerins and Jessica Shivers, a 6-2 junior, on the inside, and sharp-shooting juniors Ellen Cook and Jessie Brabender on the floor, there's no shortage of talent or determination wearing South Eugene's purple.

"We have to think that we're going to win state, we have to act like we're going to win state, we have to say that we're going to win state," Roberts said.

"And we have to win state," Kerins finished.

But first, there's that little matter of the Tournament of Champions.

"It'll give us an opportunity to get better for the state tournament and a chance to get more respect from people around the nation," Cook said.

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Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at mindi@hoopgurlz.com.