As of a month ago, most people had written off South Salem High School’s boys basketball team as being in a rebuilding year.
Starting the season 4-9 after placing in the state tournament the prior three years will have that effect.
Something significant has changed over the second half of the season for the Saxons.
The core group of three players who played significant roles last season – juniors Tyler Wadleigh and Gavin Baughman and sophomore Jaden Nielsen-Skinner – have meshed with a couple younger players and turned South Salem into a team others need to respect.
Even though they’ve just made it back to a .500 overall record with Tuesday’s 81-71 win against McNary and moved into a tie for fourth place in the Greater Valley Conference with Forest Grove at 8-6, the Saxons have become relevant again.
“I think we finally figured out our identity,” said Wadleigh, who scored 13 points against McNary. “The first half of the season we didn’t really know how we wanted to play or how we should play.
“This half of the season we really figured out our identity, which is push it up, run and gun, up tempo.”
Much of the improvement of the Saxons into who they are has come from its experienced players not playing timid.
The Saxons have won seven of their past nine games by playing like they want to win.
“I think we were more like scared to kind of play an up-tempo game,” said Nielson-Skinner, who scored 17 points against McNary. “We’re all young. We’re all scared to make mistakes and stuff.
“If we just play like we don’t care about mistakes, who cares? I turn the ball over all the time, but you have to keep playing and it’s fine.”
The difference in the team from the early part of the season to now is confidence.
They have reason to be.
With the No. 18 spot in the OSAA’s power rankings, they need to improve two positions in the final two games to host a game in the first round of the OSAA Class 6A state playoffs.
And once they get in there, they have reason for optimism.
“You take out the Les Schwab Tournament, we’ve been in every game, we’ve led every game this season,” South Salem coach Tyler Allen said.
“What we needed to learn to do is learn how to finish games, and that came with maturity. With coaches, at the end of the day, that all came down to players becoming more mature on the basketball court.”
The Saxons have one senior – Harrison Broadus – in the team’s regular rotation, and that means there are a lot of young players.
But a couple of them, Ryan Brown and Trey Galbraith, have become surprise stars.
Brown, a 6-foot-2 sophomore post, transferred to South Salem from Stayton and was on the JV team until after the Les Schwab Invitational.
His hustle on offense gives him lots of chances – he was 8 of 11 shooting from the field against McNary – and athleticism on defense have made him a presence.
“Transferring schools I thought I would be a JV player and move up in the program like everybody else,” said Brown, who scored 25 against McNary. “I kind of surprised myself.
“They’re good people here. Great passing and great people on the court, they’re one of the reasons I’m on there.”
Galbraith, a 5-7 freshman guard, is becoming the player the coaching staff had when they inserted him as a starter.
He scored 17 points and was 5 of 10 from 3-point range against McNary by displaying a rare ferocity.
“He can shoot the lights out, as you can tell, five 3’s,” Nielsen-Skinner said. “He’s just a great kid. Plays his heart out always, 24/7. I just look at him like a brother.”
Players like Galbraith and Brown should spell good things for the team for the future, but they have made South Salem competitive now.
Schematically the team went from a freelance offense to an up-tempo motion that utilizes spacing to get its adept shooters space to shoot on the perimeter.
Defensively they’ve been getting adept at using their athleticism with a half-court trap and are getting pressure off their trademark full-court press.
But that’s not the difference.
“We can say it was a new offense, it was a new defense, but at the end of the day it is everyone on the team playing with the same level of confidence,” Allen said.
“That has been a huge part. We could have changed everything up from the beginning of the season until now, but if the team hasn’t grown as a team, we’re not doing our job and you’re not going to see the success that we’ve been seeing.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler
South Salem 81, McNary 71
McNary: Matthew Ismay 19, Goff 16, Harvey 16, Garvey 8, Neitzel 5, Cavell 4, A. Martin 3, K. Martin, Jones.
South Salem: Ryan Brown 25, Nielsen-Skinner 17, Galbraith 17, Wadleigh 13, Baughman 4, Vogt 3, Bowersox 1, Ellis 1, Broadus, Low, Vinas McCall.
MCN 18 13 11 28-71
SS 21 19 15 26-81
3-point goals: McNary 1 (Neitzel); South Salem 10 (Galbraith 5, Nielsen-Skinner 2, Wadleigh 2, Vogt).