Jefferson point guard Gretchen Orton scored 39 points Thursday, increasing her average to 19.7. (Photo by Jeremy McDonald)
Jefferson point guard Gretchen Orton scored 39 points Thursday, increasing her average to 19.7. (Photo by Jeremy McDonald)

It's not easy to be a state contender in girls basketball when your entire program has eight players and the tallest is 5-foot-7 ½.

But that's exactly what 3A Jefferson is working toward this season.

“We're the toughest 5-8, eight-man team in the state. I pretty much guarantee that one,” coach Zach Maison said.

The Lions made school history last season when they posted their first state playoff victory before losing at Sutherlin 52-36 in the round of 16. After graduating seven of the 12 players in the program, though, carrying that momentum forward would prove tricky.

Thanks largely to standout play from junior point guard Gretchen Orton, good shooting and improved health, Jefferson not only has maintained that level, but taken it up a notch. The Lions are 13-1, 4-0 in the PacWest Conference, and ranked No. 8 in the OSAAtoday 3A coaches poll.

“Gretchen is leading us at the point, and we've got shooters all around her who can score the basketball,” said Maison, who is 66-40 in five seasons as the team's coach, including 15-12 last season. “I knew we had the potential to be pretty solid.”

The Lions have won 13 in a row since opening the season with a 45-44 home loss to 2A No. 3 Regis, but have yet to beat a team currently ranked in the 3A top 10. They get their biggest test of the season Friday when they play host to No. 2 Amity (13-2, 4-0) with first place in the PacWest on the line.

Last season, the 5-7 ½ Orton averaged 17.7 points as a PacWest first-team pick. She is doing a little bit of everything this season, averaging 19.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks. She also has cut back her turnovers from 3.4 last season to under 2.0.

“I think Gretchen's the best player in the league and one of the best in the state,” Maison said. “She's doing so many great things for us. There's a lot on her shoulders, but she does a great job of getting everybody involved. We've had a little bit more balanced scoring this year, taking some of that load off her shoulders.”

On Thursday night at Taft, the Lions were out of sorts after stepping on the court for the first time in one week due to the inclement weather, then got into foul trouble. Orton came to the rescue with 39 points – topping her previous career-high of 31 – to propel Jefferson to a 72-67 double-overtime win.

“Gretchen picked us up and carried us,” Maison said. “She can do that when she needs to .She can get shots for other people, but some nights shots aren't falling, so she can pick up that load and carry it herself.”

The Lions have benefited from having sophomore guard Aziza Saad and junior Bella Kunkel healthy after both missed substantial time last season, when they came off the bench.

Kunkel dealt with concussion issues and sat for the first half of the season. Saad, who suffered a torn ACL as an eighth-grader and had two surgeries, did not join the team until late in the year. This season, Saad and Kunkel are in the starting lineup and averaging 11.2 and 6.3 points, respectively.

Saad has given the Lions a consistent perimeter threat. She hit four three-pointers in the first half of a 50-43 win at Creswell and made three in a third quarter of a 35-28 win at 2A No. 8 Colton.

Senior guard Amira Saad (5.2 points) is the only other returning starter. Senior guard Tayiah Baxter turned out for the team for the first time and has cracked the starting lineup.

The Lions' bench is composed of three freshmen in post Luella Campbell and guards Genevieve Orton and Kenzie Williams. Campbell and Genevieve Orton are getting plenty of minutes and have “come a long way already,” according to Maison.

With an all-guard lineup, Jefferson has increased its scoring from 42.3 last season to 49.5. And despite graduating most of their size from last season, the Lions are holding foes to 30.0 points per game, down from 42.6 a year ago.

Jefferson often gets outrebounded, but the Lions have limited opponents' interior scoring by making entry passes difficult and digging down to help out in the post.

“Because we give up so much size, there are teams that can throw it over us,” Maison said. “You've got to have guards get inside and dig the ball back out.”

Jefferson could challenge the school record for wins, set in 1989 when the Lions went 21-3 and won their last league title. They have appeared in the state tournament twice before – 1989 and 1993 – but did not win a game.

“Last year set the bar for where we should be coming into this year,” Maison said. “And knowing, hey, we can compete in this league, and we can make it beyond our league.”