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COOS BAY – October was marked with scrimmages, November ushered in the first official games and December was decorated with tournaments. For the Southwestern Oregon Community College men's and women’s basketball teams, these contests have all led to Saturday which marks the start of the Northwest Athletic Conference regular season.

Both teams are on the road at Mount Hood with the women tipping off at 2 p.m. followed by the men at 4.

After starting the season 2-5, the SWOCC women have won four of their last six games to head into the league season at 6-7.

“Hopefully that carries over into the New Year,” said head coach Jeff Johnson on how the Lakers finished the preseason stretch of games. “I think the biggest thing for the team is how well we rebound. If we rebound well, we do well in the games.”

With Johnson focused on rebounding, he is excited about the prospect of getting post player Jill Thalman back in the lineup. After an injury sidelined the 6-foot-1 Thalman for the past month and a half, she is expected to get minutes throughout league play.

Thalman’s return is big for the injury-depleted roster. Most recently starting point guard Meghan Holloman, who had been averaging 34 minutes per game, broke her hand and will be out for the next three to seven weeks.

In the final tournament before the break the Lakers were relying on a six-player rotation for heavy minutes with one or two players getting up to six minutes of play.

“I was hoping we’d have nine, 10 people to start league but right now we’re at eight and hopefully we’ll get two more back here soon,” said Johnson. “The injury bug has bothered us for a while. But when we went on that 4-2 to end the preseason we only had eight players. We’re used to it, I guess you could say now.”

Ready or not, SWOCC now heads into a pretty tough conference.

“Pretty tough is definitely selling them short,” noted Johnson. “It’s not going to be easy. The South never has been.”

The top four teams in the division — Umpqua, Clackamas, Linn-Benton and Lane — have a combined record of 45-5 and all four teams are ranked in the top six of the latest coaches’ poll. But before Johnson is going to worry about the competition, he is first focused on the Lakers.

“It’s still about us getting better every game. We can’t get worried about the other teams. Especially this early. If we take care of business, it shouldn’t matter what other teams are doing,” said Johnson.

Out to a 5-6 start on the year, the SWOCC men finished 2019 winning four of their last five games. With, essentially, an entire new team this season, head coach Trevor Hoppe saw the late wins as a sign of this group starting to figure it out.

“I think we’ve just grown so much. When we started out with so many freshmen, really just two sophomores, the opportunity for growth was just there. And everybody, players and coaches, wanted it to happen faster than it has happened — it takes time,” said Hoppe.

“Just seeing everybody grow and get used to the speed of the game, the physicality of the college game, the length of the college game. All that stuff and just finally start coming together.”

While the Lakers are averaging 95 points per game — including a 151-point outing against Multnomah JV — and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range as a team, Hoppe has been pleased with the defense his team has played. Opposing teams have averaged 87 points against SWOCC.

“Our defense has really picked up. I thought we could do it but we weren’t doing it at the beginning. And so just to see that, just the energy and the effort and the talk on defense,” said Hoppe. “The aggressiveness to go rebound the basketball has really been nice to see and that’s the thing that has impressed me about these guys, their willingness to really work really hard at that end.”

Hoppe is hoping that this defensive intensity is able to translate into the league season as the level of competition rises. In the nine-team South Region that the Lakers are in, six teams are at or above .500. Umpqua and Clackamas are at the top of the standings at 12-1 and 11-1, respectively.

With the top four teams in from the region advancing to the NWAC tournament, the Lakers believe that they have a chance to sneak into that top tier.

“We’ve got to be able to handle the good times and handle the bad times, too. It’s just such a long (season) — 16 games is a lot. But that’s where we’re shooting for, that top four and competing and battling every night,” said Hoppe.

The SWOCC men and women will be at home against Clark College on Saturday, Jan. 11.

As in past years, the Saturday games start at 2 and 4 p.m., with Wednesday contests starting at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.  

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Reporter Zachary Silva can be reached at 541-266-6036 or by email at zachary.silva@theworldlink.com.

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