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Seven-year-old Taryn Field wanted last Friday's slumber party to
begin in a special way: with a pregame visit to the locker room
of Oregon City High's three-time defending state champion and
two-time defending national champion girls' basketball team. Not
a problem. Everyone is welcome in the locker room, both before
the game and at halftime. So, as coach Brad Smith and assistant
Carl Tinsley ran through the Pioneers' 10 pressure defenses and
a bewildering series of in-bounds plays named after Civil War
battles (the coaches also team-teach American history at the
high school), their audience included one terrific undefeated
basketball team and 18 giggling grade-schoolers with stars in
their eyes.

Actually, it wouldn't have mattered if Friday-night's opponent,
Lake Oswego High, had listened in--the Pioneers went out and
played their normal brand of full-bore regimented chaos and
breezed to a 92-32 victory, their 58th in a row over two and a
half seasons. "We are at last in Oregon City, that long-looked
for place!" wrote one Esther Belle Hanna in a diary she kept
during her journey along the Oregon Trail in 1852. But these
days no such exultation is expressed by the girls' teams that
visit this town of 20,000, which loudly and proudly proclaims
its historical significance as the western terminus of the
Oregon Trail. End of the trail indeed: A visiting team has not
beaten the Pioneers in Oregon City since 1993. And the Pioneers,
17-0 at week's end and once again standing No. 1 in USA Today's
national rankings, aren't bad when they hit the trail either.
This season they've won games against tough competition in New
York City; Altoona, Pa.; and Fort Myers, Fla. The last game
Oregon City High lost was on Dec. 30, 1994, at a tournament in
Pickerington, Ohio.

The Pioneers think globally, act locally. "Oregon City's a
blue-collar, borrow-an-egg-from-your-neighbor kind of mill town,
and that's the kind of team we are," says senior guard Cherisse
Fowler, whose father, Dan, is the mayor. Says Ralph Groener, a
state lobbyist who has followed the Pioneers since 1978, "This
team is what people talk about at the barbershop, at the grocery
store, at the paper mill. Girls' basketball has kept us
together." And kept them together through some tough times, such
as last year when the rain-swollen Willamette and Clackamas
rivers overflowed their banks, causing some $15 million in
damage to the downtown area. "When you have a team and
excitement like this," says Mayor Fowler, pointing to the
red-and-white pom-pommed pandemonium around him, "you tend to
forget your problems."

Credit Smith, 44, a 5'4" cyclone of energy, for much of that
amnesia. When he returned to his alma mater after college ("I'm
Welcome Back Kotter," he says), he installed a frenetic,
up-tempo playing style, a community-league feeder system
supervised by himself and Tinsley and a
jump-in-the-van-we'll-play-anyone philosophy that, as he puts
it, "got our players dreaming dreams." The Pioneers raise their
own travel funds ($9,000 for this season) by selling things like
autographed posters to a community generous about feeding the
collection plate. "I remember getting a poster of an Oregon City
player," says 6'1" forward Brianne Meharry, who averages about
25 points. "I thought I'd gone to heaven."

Brianne's next destination is Oregon, on an athletic
scholarship. The other blue-chip senior is Ashley Smith, 5'4",
who will take her coach's-kid point-guard game to Vanderbilt,
where she'll miss her father's raspy exhortations, but, she
believes, "I'll hear him in my head." Next season's star
attraction will be 6'2" Lindsey Yamasaki, who is rated among the
nation's best in both basketball and volleyball and is
reportedly on Stanford's A list.

After the game against Lake Oswego, all three and their
teammates milled around on the gym floor, talking to friends and
family, participating in the communal bonding that follows every
home game. And don't fret, young one, if you didn't talk to your
favorite Pioneer--just come say hello in the locker room before
the next game. --J.M.

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN [Girl's basketball team in huddle]