Philomath High’s girls basketball team can no longer work the underdog role.

The Warriors had finished in the lower half of the Oregon West Conference standings for three straight years, including dead last in 2017-18. So when Philomath took the floor last season under a new head coach, opposing teams had to be surprised at how far the Warriors had come.

“We were able to play as the underdogs all year — really all the way through the tournament,” PHS coach Ben Silva said last week after a morning practice. “I think we went in (to the state tourney) ranked sixth, which was towards the bottom end of the bracket. So yeah, we talk a lot about just competing and making sure we’re not being content with where we’re at. We have to continue to work hard.”

Based on the preseason coaches poll as published by OSAAToday, the rest of Class 4A has taken notice. Coaches that voted in the poll put the Warriors at No. 1.

“Those polls don’t mean a whole lot before any basketball games are played,” Silva said. “We have to take a little bit of a different approach with the way that we talk about things. Now we have some expectations to live up to and I have full confidence in my team. They’re going to go out and compete.”

Philomath won the Oregon West Conference title last season, finished 23-5 overall and reached the 4A semifinals. The Warriors whipped Madras in the first round and slipped past Banks by two points in the quarterfinals. The team dropped a five-point decision to Baker in the semis and had to settle for the fifth-place trophy with a loss to league rival Newport.

The experience that the players picked up last season at state should go a long way, Silva said. The disappointment that the team felt after falling to Banks will also serve as motivation heading into this year.

“We were right there in a semifinal game ... it was a close game coming down to the end,” Silva said. “But we were able to win the first game (at Forest Grove) and that was a great experience to feel that — having some success at the state tournament. Then you learn as much or more from the losses than you do from the wins.”

The emergence of then-freshman Sage Kramer last season played a role in the program’s quick turnaround. Kramer’s presence was felt all around the Oregon West to the extent that coaches voted her as the Player of the Year.

Even though she was new to the OWC circuit, Silva said other coaches new what she could do on the basketball court.

“I think the coaches knew last year and they tried to do things to stop her, but she’s very talented on the offensive end ... she’s very tough to stop,” Silva said. “She has a very fine skillset and it makes her a challenge to be stopped.”

Kramer, who also made the all-tournament first team at state, averaged 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and had a team-high 86 steals last season for the Warriors.

Senior Emma Pankalla also returns to the lineup. She was also a first-team all-conference selection last year after averaging 5.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 7.3 points per game.

“She kinda sets the stage for us at the point guard position ... creates a lot of stuff for her teammates,” Silva said.

Junior Mia Rust is another all-conference first-teamer who will be suiting up again this year for Philomath. Rust averaged 11.7 points, had a team-high 27 blocked shots and finished with 51 steals.

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“She’s able to score in multiple ways as well and she’s very athletic and can get out and run,” Silva said.

Other returning players that saw time in 10 or more varsity games last season include seniors Rivers Nuno, Lara Hunter and Alexis Van Vlack, and juniors Braedyn McNeely and Phaedra Hinds-Cook.

“I think we look pretty good overall,” said Silva, who has 25 students in the program this season. “We definitely need to refine things, especially on the offensive end. The offense always lags a little bit behind at the beginning of the season. But the girls have been working really hard, have great attitudes and are getting out and competing in practice. I’m seeing a lot of improvement.”

Coaches often switch up their offensive or defensive approach from year to year to take advantage of the players’ skills. Silva is making a few tweaks to the offense.

“We have the same philosophical approach,” Silva said. “We trained to our offense a little bit over the summer to better utilize our skills, so the offense will look a little bit different but defensively, we still should look pretty similar.”

A deep bench allows Silva to get creative with the offense.

“We want to get out and run and be athletic and rotate a lot of girls in,” Silva said. “I think we can go deep into our bench and be very successful by running up and down and making it difficult for other teams to run with us.”

As for the freshmen class coming in, 11 players are part of that group.

“Right now, it doesn’t look like we’ll have any contributing right away at the varsity level,” Silva said. “There’s definitely a lot of talent, it’s a very deep group, and we expect big things from them in the future.”

Philomath will be considered a favorite to repeat as the Oregon West champion but Silva said it will be a dogfight.

“I think it could be tough,” Silva said. “Last year, our conference didn’t get a lot of respect around the state and then we had three teams go to the final eight.”

Silva said Stayton and Newport lost a lot of seniors but he expects those programs to bounce back with what they do have returning. He also mentioned Cascade as a much-improved team and believes Woodburn could be a factor as well.

“We had quite a few young teams that should significantly improve this year,” Silva said.

The season opens Wednesday with a 7 p.m. home game against Banks, another team ranked in the coaches’ preseason poll. On Saturday, the team will host Junction City at 5:30 p.m. and this coming Tuesday, plays a third straight home game when 5A Central pays a visit for a 5:30 p.m. contest.

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