Well before the girls basketball season started, South Medford head coach Tom Cole had a plan to prepare his team for a run at the Class 6A state title.

Well before the girls basketball season started, South Medford head coach Tom Cole had a plan to prepare his team for a run at the Class 6A state title.

His plan involved routinely replacing pieces of the puzzle, mostly during the conference season, to build the experience level of all and learn to withstand the periodic loss of any.

That plan will now receive the ultimate test because 6-foot-5 senior center Tess Picknell will be out of action from two to six weeks due to an ankle injury suffered in last Friday's win over Crater.

"It's pretty bad," Cole said on Monday. "The bruising is pretty significant. She sent me a picture over the weekend and she's got swelling all the way from her toes to her ankle."

The top-ranked Panthers, 12-0 overall and 2-0 in the Southern Oregon Hybrid, will play their first game without Picknell tonight at Grants Pass (6-4). A minimum of two weeks away would also include home games against Ashland, North Medford and Roseburg. A six-week absence would likely have Picknell eligible to return for the Feb. 21 regular-season finale against the Black Tornado.

"We're hoping it's on the better side but we obviously know for at least two weeks we won't have her," said Cole, whose team is No. 11 in the national rankings released Monday.

At the risk of being dramatic, Picknell was the one player the Panthers could least afford to lose for any significant period. She's averaging 12 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and two assists, but her role has always been more intricate than simple statistics.

"There's no question that she plays a critical role and has played a critical role in our success and that's taking nothing away from the other girls that we have," said Cole.

The team's fastbreak style of offense is predicated on Picknell dominating the defensive glass and then making quick outlet passes to flashing guards Kylie Towry, Yaremi Mejia, Ashley Bolston and Andee Ritter. And in the paint, the Stanford-bound Picknell is like none other with the imposing force she provides as a shot blocker and rebounder.

"You can interchange guards and forward positions and change the way you defend full-court but it's really hard to change 6-5," said Cole. "Removing that piece off the chess board is like taking the queen off. You can move rooks around and pawns around and figure out moves with other pieces that are still valuable but they're not as valuable for what she brings just on her size alone and the attention she brings on the offensive end and especially on the defensive end."

Picknell's injury occurred when she came down on another player's foot and rolled her ankle in the third quarter against Crater.

Cole said Picknell, who wears a men's size 15 shoe, has been to two doctors already and that there doesn't appear to be concern of a broken bone or ligament tear in her left foot, but she has been referred to a specialist to get another look. She's currently on crutches but has been able to bear some weight on the injured foot.

"We're trying to stay positive and she doesn't feel that she's in any kind of excruciating pain or sense of alarm that it's anything more than the trainer believed, which is still significant," said the coach. "She's disappointed but I think she's a tough kid who just wants to do as much as she can to let it rest and heal so her transition back will be as quick as possible."

South Medford has gone without Picknell before after she suffered a less serious ankle sprain early last season and also when she played for another elite AAU basketball program for the bulk of the summer.

"They have played and competed and in some cases been victorious against very good teams in the absence of Tess," said Cole, "but it's been a long time and we've played a lot of basketball since her return."

A shift in scheme will most certainly be necessary, as well as a sharing of the load when it comes to crashing the boards and interior defense.

"It's going to force us to have to change," added the coach. "We're going to have to look at playing a different style of basketball. Both offensively and defensively, it changes what we've been doing consistently this whole year. We've had rotations where she's not in the game and obviously we're able to do some of those things but those rotations still are kinda founded in a set style of play with her presence there."

South Medford has shown tremendous scoring balance thus far, with Towry's 19 points leading the way on a team that has five players averaging at least eight points. The 5-10 Ritter averages 13 points, three assists and three steals in her freshman campaign, while 5-11 sophomore Ashley Bolston is averaging 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals as the team's most versatile performer.

Also in that prime leadership mix is point guard Mejia, who averages eight points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals, and the team's unsung hero in fellow junior Luisa Tago, who registers five rebounds and five points per game as a 5-9 forward.

Senior Leilani Morris, who has already stepped up in Picknell's absence at Crater, will also likely be asked to log more minutes. The solid 6-3 post was a fixture in the rotation as a freshman and sophomore before sitting out last season. Her return this season was already a welcomed one for all the intangibles she provides, and only now becomes that much more vital.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry