by: JON HOUSE - La Salle's Keeston Smith dishes off to a teammate during last year's state playoff game with Scappoose. Smith is the only experienced player returning from the league championship team, but the Falcons  believe they have the horses to defend their Tri-Valley Conference title.The La Salle Falcons return only one experienced player from last year’s team that won the Tri-Valley Conference boys basketball championship and placed third at state.

But that doesn’t mean the Falcons won’t be a contender in TVC and Class 4A basketball again this year.

The Falcons have reloaded their varsity with players accustomed to winning. La Salle’s JV team went 22-1 last season, withits only loss in overtime to Tillamook; and La Salle freshmen a year ago were a perfect 22-0, with two of their wins over freshmen teams from Class 6A Jesuit.

“Ninety percent of our practices are varsity and JV practicing together, which leads to a shorter learning curve in the transition to varsity,” La Salle coach Jared Curtiss says. “We hit the ground running. We tell our JV kids the toughest opponent they face all year will be their own teammates in practices.

The Falcons are 5-1. Valley Catholic, which placed fifth at last year’s 3A tournament, defeated La Salle 42-35 on Dec. 12.

“We had a lead late, but they rallied and got us,” Curtiss says. “They’re probably going to be a top-two team [in 3A] this year.”

In other preseason games, the Falcons earned wins over Stayton (84-48), Banks (70-34), Tillamook (63-42), Cascade (71-64) and Scappoose (58-45).

“We pass the ball extremely well,” Curtiss says. “We’re a zone-breaking team that shoots the ball really well. We may not be as athletic as last year, but we shoot the ball much better.

“We share the ball and play well together. And we’ve got size. We could start five guys who are 6-5 or taller. It’s nice to be big and have good shooters, as well.”

And the Falcons have good depth.

“We have 10 guys that would start at a lot of places, and we have five guys that could play post,” Curtiss says.

Starters for the Falcons have been seniors Luke Kolln (6-0 point guard) and Thomas Callahan (6-5 post), and juniors Valois Gashongore (6-0 guard), Reece Wible (6-6 wing) and Keeston Smith (6-7 post/wing). Smith is a returning starter.

“Keeston is our best all-around player,” Curtiss says. ”He controls the glass, and he can also shoot the 3."

“We don’t have [graduates] Sean [Hays] or Jacob [McGraw] to throw the ball in to,” Smith says. “But we have some guards who are great shooters. And our posts can hit the 3 as well.”

Smith averaged 11 points and 8.8 rebounds in the Falcons’ first five games. Wible averaged 12.4 points on 50 percent shooting, with seven 3-pointers. Kolln averaged 4.2 assists.

Matthew Berger, a 6-5 freshman, was scheduled to start in place of Gashongore in last Friday’s game with Scappoose, while Gashongore was away visiting family in Dubai.

“He may become one of the best players we’ve ever had,” Curtiss says, of Berger. “He has high basketball IQ, and he does everything really well. He can shoot, rebound; he passes really well; he can defend; and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

Rounding out the Falcon roster are seniors Grant Cameron (6-0 wing), Christopher Dowhaniuk (5-10 wing) and Ryan Cavanagh (6-2 post/wing); juniors Michael Duarte (5-9 wing), Michael Edwards (5-6 guard), Matthew D’Amore (5-8 wing) and Brandon Falk (6-5 post), and sophomore Andrew Lam (5-6 guard).

Although he’s got talent, Curtiss says the TVC won’t be a cakewalk for anyone.

“I think we have three really good teams in the Tri-Valley League, and all three could get to Gill,” Curtiss says, of the state tourney at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis. “I’ve seen most of the top-10-ranked teams, and Gladstone gets my vote for No. 1 in the state. They were good last year. They’ve got almost everybody back and they’re better this year.”

Curtiss says he expects Madras to also field a strong team and that North Marion is a possible darkhorse.

But Curtiss cautions opponents who think his Falcons, with a roster decimated by graduation, could be pushovers: “When we communicate and play tough defense, take care of the basketball and stay in front of guys going to the basket, we’re a tough match-up for anybody."

“I feel we have the capability to bring another league title back to La Salle, and make a good run at state,” Smith says. “Even though we don’t have a lot coming back, we’re a lot deeper than other teams in our league. ... I feel we can play eight or nine guys every night.”

The Falcons are on the road until Tuesday, Jan. 21, when they open league play as hosts to Gladstone.

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