Abigail Brown, a 6-foot-3 senior, returns this season for the Warriors. (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School girls basketball team no longer flies under the radar — those days are long gone. The Warriors have been a force in Class 4A for the past four seasons with a 82-12 record and head into this season as the defending state champions following an 11-point win over Corbett this past March.

“We’re ready … we’ve had good practices especially with the way the season works now,” PHS coach Ben Silva said. “It used to be that basketball started at the beginning of November but now we start in the middle of November and then your second week you get into Thanksgiving and you have to have days off there with everybody spending time with their families.”

Silva said it’s neither an advantage or a disadvantage with all teams working through the same preseason schedule.

“It feels like there’s more time that we need to put in,” he added, “but we’ll be ready to compete on Saturday for sure.”

A common denominator over Philomath’s successful four-year stretch was Sage Kramer, who is now playing collegiately at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Reagan Larson is another top player from the title team lost to graduation.

“We’re going to have to find a way to score more points this year because the bulk of our scoring is gone,” Silva said. “But it’s going to look different, more of a team aspect, more continuity offense where we’re able to work together and run out possessions and get points that way.”

For whatever reason, only five of the 10 juniors in last year’s program return this season as seniors. The loss of those five players can be seen in the program’s overall numbers, which are down from 29 to 24.

Hailie Couture, a senior guard, heads into the season as a third-year starter. (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

“The numbers are down this year which is disappointing to me but we’re going to make three teams happen because we’ll swing some kids,” Silva said. “That’s one thing, there will be a lot of kids that are going to play five quarters every night. They’re going to be tired but will get in good shape and will get better having a lot of minutes.”

Although Silva would like to see more students wanting to play, he believes that the players who will suit up this season put Philomath in a position for success. Four of those five seniors have seen significant playing time — Abigail Brown, Hailie Couture, Ingrid Hellesto and Mia Bennett.

Brown, Couture and Hellesto all earned all-conference honors last season.

“We have Abigail Brown coming back to the post,” Silva said. “She’s going to be a force inside like she was last year — especially in the state tournament.”

As Silva indicated, Brown came on strong over the second half of last season during Philomath’s surge to the state title. At state, she averaged 12 points, shot 61% from the field and had a tournament-high nine blocked shots.

Couture will be a third-year starter at guard who is coming off a season in which she averaged 6.3 points per game with a high degree of success at 3-point shooting.

Said Silva, “Obviously, she’s a great outside-shooting threat.”

Hellesto started several games early in the season before Silva transitioned her into an effective sixth-man role.

“She really developed last year throughout the course of the season and played a huge role in our title run,” Silva said.

Bennett also brings back a lot of varsity experience.

“She’s doing a good job attacking on the offensive end and it looks like she’s going to provide some points,” Silva said.

Junior Ahnika Tryon got in some varsity minutes last season and appears to be penciled in as a starter. Sophomore Aneeka Steen and freshman Emily Taunisila will be among the younger players contributing. Sophomores Mica Boynton and Zoee Howard will also be in the mix. Philomath’s fifth senior is Ally Todd, who moves up from the junior varsity. 

“We’re going to have to look a little bit different than what we have for sure,” Silva said. “I mean, Sage was able to go get points at will basically and we don’t necessarily have that. That’s not a bad thing, it’ll just look different.”

The new look will involve a lot of additional strategies on offense to open up scoring opportunities.

“Everybody will be more engaged in the offense and will have to be executing their role even more so to get teammates open, whether it be sending screens or coming off screens — we’ve been working on that a lot this year,” Silva said. “We’re going to have to work within the flow of an offense to have that success on the offensive end. And we’re going to have to be great defensively again.”

Philomath certainly was tough on defense last season allowing just 31.7 points per game.

“If we can find a way to score 35 points a game if we’re going to hold teams in the low 30s, then we’ll put ourselves in a good position,” Silva said.

Philomath tips off the season at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Junction City. The game represents a true early test for both programs with the Warriors ranked No. 3 and the Tigers at No. 9 in the OSAAtoday preseason coaches poll.

“They were a top five to top seven team last year and they lost a tough one at home to go to the final eight but they were right there,” Silva said. “They’re going to be good again for sure.”

The nonleague schedule is unique this season for the Warriors with only one home game in December and three tournaments — Dec. 9-10 at Marist Catholic, Dec. 15-17 at Coos Bay and Dec. 28-30 in Alaska.

The boys have been participating in the Clark Cochrane Christmas Classic in Ketchikan, Alaska, for two decades but this will be a first for the girls (the team had planned to go in 2020 but the trip was canceled).

“It’s a great atmosphere … it’s like a mini state tournament in December because the whole town comes out and loves basketball to create a great feel in the gym,” said Silva, who had made the Alaska trip in the past as an assistant coach with the boys.

John Hanson and Malori Warren return this season as assistant coaches.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.