Taylor Chavez has already helped the Oregon women’s basketball team celebrate a championship.
After the Ducks clinched their first outright Pac-12 title in 18 years with a win at Arizona on Feb. 25, Chavez made her way from the stands to the trophy presentation outside the visiting locker room in the McKale Center.
“It was amazing,” said Chavez, who made the short road trip with her family down to Tucson from here hometown of Surprise, Ariz. “I think that was about a week before I had my state championship game, so it just kind of heightened the experience. I’ve experienced that in high school, but in college it’s a whole different level.
“So I’m excited to be a part of that with this team.”
Most of the smiling faces posing for those postseason photos with the hardware were back in the practice gym last week as the Ducks began preparing for a repeat performance.
Notre Dame transfer Erin Boley was with the team during her redshirt season last year, and freshman forward Nyara Sabally will miss the 2018-19 campaign because of a knee injury.
That makes Chavez the lone new kid on the block. Or the three-point line in this case.
“Taylor is the only one that hasn’t really played with us,” reigning Pac-12 player of the year Sabrina Ionescu noted after a recent practice. “She has fit right in and hasn’t had any lapses, and she’s not going to be able to.
“She’s going to get thrown in and she’s going to have to adapt and learn quickly.”
Valley Vista High coach Rachel Matakas said Chavez “stepped back” initially as a ninth-grade player, but by the end of her stellar prep career she earned “The G.O.A.T” nickname — as in greatest of all time.
“I think her strengths are going to be her willingness to learn, to understand her role, and do whatever her team needs her to do to be successful,” Matakas said. “If they want her to be the best water girl, she will be the best water girl. If they want her to be the best three-point shooter, she will be the best three-point shooter.
“She will do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Chavez led Valley Vista to back-to-back 6A state championships and earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors for the state of Arizona. As a senior last season, the 5-foot-10 guard averaged 23.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 5.3 steals.
Her parents, Brad and Kim, were even more impressed with another stat — Chavez graduated from high school with a weighted 4.48 grade-point average.
“Never once did I ever have to ask her if her homework was done,” said Kim, who is a social studies teacher at Valley Vista. “When she was younger we were concerned because she was a perfectionist.”
Chavez was one of two girls on her flag football team, playing quarterback and running back. She was also a natural at the plate but quickly became frustrated with the youth softball rules that only allowed her to advance to second base after she belted line drives over the heads of fledgling outfielders.
During a fourth-grade basketball game, when Chavez was one of the smaller kids on the roster, Kim remembers her coming off the bench after some of her teammates got into foul trouble and knocking down two game-winning free throws without batting an eye.
“Taylor has always been one of those kids, the only way you can describe it is she takes everything to the next level,” said Kim, who played junior college basketball. “And she hates to lose. She just hates it.”
Chavez has come to the right place.
The Ducks won a school record 33 games last season, followed up the regular-season Pac-12 championship by winning the conference tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive March.
With the return of Ionescu and savvy senior point guard Maite Cazorla in the backcourt, versatile wing Satou Sabally and dominant forward Ruthy Hebard, Oregon will be a heavy favorite when the Pac-12 preseason poll is released next week.
Chavez is expected to help replace sharpshooter Lexi Bando’s consistent offensive production.
“She’s in the rotation,” Graves said of Chavez after Oregon’s first practice of the season. “She’s good, she’s ready for it, she’s played at a high level, she competes, she can shoot it, she can handle it.
“The game is fast for her right now, but you watch, she will catch up quickly. And in our open gyms, up until now, she has been awesome.”
Matakas said it’s easy to point to the two game-winning three-pointers Chavez made last season as evidence of her knack for coming through in big moments. But what stood out even more to her coach was, during a rivalry game, when she drew the defense and then made a pass to a freshman for an easier basket to seal a win.
Chavez’s talents drew scholarship offers from around the country. She narrowed the list of suitors to Northwestern, USC, Baylor, Washington and Oregon.
“She was really stressed out about it,” Matakas recalled. “We kind of talked through some things and ranked all the schools based on what she thought was best for her. Once she made the decision, she was relaxed.”
Chavez made two unofficial visits and one official visit to Oregon before committing last fall and signing her national letter of intent in November.
“The culture that the players have established,” Chavez said of why Oregon was the best fit for her. “That’s definitely attributed to their (2016) high school class. And then the coaching staff as well. It was just very attractive because of that.”
Chavez is interested in accounting and sports business, which was also a factor in her decision. Kim said her daughter is driven to have a career at at a company like Nike or to be the business CEO.
“We told her when you go visit you will know it, you’ll feel it. And that’s what happened when were at Oregon,” Kim said. “It’s hard to explain because a lot of the coaches were phenomenal people and gracious and great with our family. it just seemed like she had a connection with the girls at Oregon.
“When we had a dinner with the team she was laughing, it felt like she had known them forever.”
The 2018-19 Ducks have the chemistry, experience and skill to make a run at the national championship.
“I think our biggest strength is we all like each other, we all get along, and we’re unselfish players,” Hebard said. “I think that’s going to carry us into March and April.”
Graves has described Chavez as having a competitive spirit similar to Ionescu’s, which means the true freshmen is going to fit right in with her new basketball family.
“I think I just hate to lose more than I love winning, so I want to be the best and find ways to contribute, even if it’s not a big part,” Chavez said of her expectations for this season. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help my team win. It’s just a never-lose attitude.
“I think a lot of that is from my parents and my high school coach. My high school coach is one of the most competitive people I know, so she helped instill that in me.”