Harper senior players (from left) Alexis Wilson, Kylee Jager and Kassie Jordan will spearhead the Hornet attack this season. (Photo courtesy of Harper Charter School)

JORDAN VALLEY – The hoops season tipped off last week in the High Desert League, and once again several Malheur County girls teams are expected to be strong contenders for top spots.

Jordan Valley has captured league titles and had deep tournament runs in recent seasons, a trend many expect to continue as the Mustangs return their core of players intact.

“I am returning all starters from last year’s team, which is huge,” said Kelsi Skinner, head coach of the Mustang team. “My younger players also add a great dynamic to the team.”

Skinner took charge of the team in 2016 and has led the Lady Mustangs to playoffs the past two seasons, sealing last season’s league title. 

“I think this year our league will be interesting, but I look for us to be in the top three teams,” said Skinner.

She said as a coach, she’s always learning and changing to adapt to the new chemistry of teams each year.  

“I look forward to a fun and energetic season this year,” said Skinner.

Skinner’s team is the league favorite to win the title again.

The Mustangs made it to the quarterfinals of state tournament and are predicted to build on that experience.

“Jordan Valley has a good group of seniors and they’re a pretty talented group, so they’re on the top of what they’ve been,” said Justin Johnson, head coach of Harper Charter School’s girls team.

The Hornets, who finished 3-7 last season, have three returning seniors and four returning sophomores this season.

With fewer than 10 players on the roster, Harper’s bench is not deep. However, the Hornets have three capable veterans with experience and athleticism.

“Our improvement is going to be more experience from last year,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s only concern is height. 

“We’re a pretty short team, and we might struggle with that,” he said.

Entering his 20th season as girls head basketball coach, Johnson has found that “every group of girls poses different benefits and different lessons to be learned.” 

This year, he said he plans to focus on preparing the girls for upcoming games. 

In Adrian, the Antelopes are seeking to return to the state tournament this season with a new team.

Rocked by the death of their head coach of 14 years during the 2017-18 season, the team is now in the hands of a new coach, LaDawn Bayes. Despite that change, the expectations for performance remain the same.

 “I know we have a pretty strong year ahead. I’m excited for this new season,” said Bayes.

Adrian returns several players this winter for a program that is working its way back to the top 10 in class 1A, a spot the team had for nearly a decade.

“I think we have a pretty strong rebounding team,” said Bayes. “Last season was a rough one for the girls, and I feel like they didn’t do well as they could have,” she said. “But with all the changes coming out of the last season, they are excited to be back on the court.”

Bayes’ top three players include seniors Sadey Speelmon, Roby Young and Grace Morton. Speelmon is the Antelopes’ starting guard, Morton is the team’s top shooter, and Young is an athlete who “can get up and down the floor real fast.”

“Those three are kind of my leaders,” said Bayes. “They’re a quieter group on the court, but that’s something we’re working on.”

“We have a pretty tough league,” said Bayes. “We’re also starting out with going against strong teams in the preseason.”

The Antelopes dropped their first preseason game last Thursday, a close 33-36 loss to Ambrose. They play their first home game Friday, facing Harper Charter.

“We’re going to be running the floor a lot,” said Bayes. “We have a pretty athletic team, and we’re sticking to that brand of Adrian basketball.”

The league gains three new schools this season: Ontario’s Four Rivers Community School, Ukiah and Long Creek.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: news@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.