After a season of having this community prop them up with their support, the state champion South Medford boys basketball team gave back to their fans Thursday night with a Fan Appreciation Night in the Panther gym.
About 1,000 Panther followers of all ages showed up for the celebration, which included "thank yous" from the coaches and players and the raising of South Medford's Class 6A championship banner.
"I don't think we could say thank you enough to our community," said South Medford coach Dennis Murphy. "We're second to none here, it's just unbelievable."
While they may never be able to show their gratitude to everyone, Murphy and the Panthers certainly tried their best Thursday.
From the administration to the teachers to the janitors, the Panthers offered thanks.
From the band to the cheerleaders to the "Construction Crew" student section in the crowd, the Panthers offered thanks.
From the video crew to the bus driver to ball boy, the Panthers offered thanks.
You would've been hard-pressed to find anyone in the gym that didn't get the sense that the Panthers truly cared about those who made their title run possible.
"This just shows how much support we had throughout the whole season," South Medford senior Kyle Singler said of Thursday's turnout. "We had the best support you possibly could have. It was pretty special and this whole experience is something I won't forget."
The most memorable moment for the players Thursday, however, didn't have much to do with basketball.
Making good on a promise he made to the team after South Medford's semifinal win over Jesuit, team statistician B.G. Gould took the hot seat for a special haircut that left him much lighter on top and definitely more aerodynamic.
"It feels different, definitely different," Gould said of his freshly shaved dome, "but I had to follow through on my word."
There was only one condition, added Gould.
"I wanted to look like E.J. (Singler) and Van (Dellenback-Ouellette) and not Mr. T," he added, "no offense to the bald gentlemen in the valley."
Junior point guard Michael Harthun took the first turn on the shears, then one by one all the Panthers took a turn at buzzing away Gould's hair.
"It was just one of those things that's funny but also just cool to do because you're doing it as a team," said Harthun. "We definitely had a good time with it."
"We joked around with him and said we were going to bring shaving cream out, but he wasn't going for that," added the 6-foot-3 standout.
But while that took care of the comedy for the night, the biggest emotional outburst came as South Medford's championship banner was raised to the rafters on a pulley set up by assistant coach Kirk Daley.
"I was crying ... it's just a fabulous feeling," Murphy said of watching his players rally around the banner to see it raised. "It feels so much better than you ever thought it would feel. I know it sounds crazy, but it was just exhilarating."
That emotion spilled over to the players, too.
"It was a pretty special moment," said Singler. "The thing that was going through my mind was just all the times I've been in the gym putting all the hours in and just finally realizing all that hard work has paid off."
Being able to share the title with the community was a common theme among the players and coaches, as well as the impact that their victory has had locally. The Panthers were awarded the key to the city earlier Thursday, and Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler offered a proclamation in their honor.
"This is the epitome of what we want to happen in a marriage of excellent athletic programs and excellent academic programs," said Medford schools Superintendent Dr. Phil Long. "Certainly we celebrate with South Medford, but this is about our community and the investments that they've made in excellent programs and our students even in hard times."
"When you think what our community has gone through the last four years in our schools, to have something like this achieved by students is a remarkable occurrence," he added.
After all the praise had been doled out, the Panthers made themselves available for an autograph frenzy that lasted about an hour. Fans young and old lined up to get team photos, T-shirts or basketballs signed. At least one teenager is walking around today talking on a cell phone signed by Kyle Singler.
Harthun was a particular target of 9-year-old Jordan Ragan, a fourth-grader at Grace Christian School.
"Michael Harthun is my favorite player," said Ragan.
And why him?
"Because he is really good," came the quick reply.
After dodging around from one end of the group to another in search of Harthun, the two finally hooked up to cap a 10-minute quest that most assuredly seemed like a lifetime for Ragan.
The ensuing smile of accomplishment was just exactly what Murphy and crew had envisioned when they put together Thursday's celebration.
"Without the fans we wouldn't be where we are," said Harthun. "I think they're the best fans in the state, so it feels really good to give something back to them."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org