Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
While it was always a possibility, few could have anticipated that the Southern Oregon Hybrid boys basketball season would come down to a winner-take-all contest between North Medford and South Medford in tonight's regular season finale.
With three starters and a fourth key contributor returning, the Black Tornado either was supposed to be in this position or have already locked up the SOH crown by this time.
With an almost entirely new cast of players and only one returner with significant varsity experience, the Panthers were hopeful but certainly less likely to be in their current position.
And, yet, here both teams stand as they prepare for a series tiebreaker at 7 tonight at North Medford High that will determine the SOH championship. The fifth-ranked Black Tornado and Panthers each stand 10-1 in conference play, and both Medford schools have secured 20-win seasons for the second straight year and third time since the 2007-08 season.
"In some ways it's the luck of the draw and the way the schedule is drawn," South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy said of the pivotal regular season-ender, "but when you have two pretty good basketball teams here, it obviously turns out to be a good thing for all of us."
South Medford (20-3) prevailed in the first meeting this season, winning 52-47 at North Medford on Jan. 17, and the Black Tornado (20-2) turned the tables at the Panther gym on Feb. 3 with a 51-37 triumph. Other than that, it's been smooth sailing this season for both teams, which have already secured spots in the Class 6A state playoffs.
"I knew all along that South was going to be the team to challenge us," said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, whose team advanced to the state semifinals last year. "Both teams did a great job of winning on the other team's home floor to make it so it comes down to this last game. I think we're really close to where I had us projected and I'm not sure South's all that much of a surprise other than maybe their record being 20-3. That they're playing for a conference title is no surprise to me."
Although the Oregon School Activities Association doesn't reward teams for winning a conference championship in the power rankings that determine playoff bracketing, there's no question North and South value a win tonight — and what comes with it — more than anything else. The Panthers have earned at least a share of nine of the past 10 conference titles, while the Tornado is seeking a first league title since the 1998-99 season.
"We really look at it as we have three seasons: our preseason, regular season and postseason," said Murphy. "For us, the regular season is really the most important because it really is about conference championships and hanging banners. Especially in the situation we are to this point, where no one thinks we can do that, that would be a huge feather in our cap. The postseason is frosting on the cake."
Plankenhorn's troops have carried the weight of expectations toward their first conference crown, and he said there's no reason to back away from that now.
"It is only one game, it doesn't end or make your season either way, but it's definitely one you want," said the coach. "That's what we've talked about all season, that you want the conference title. Obviously it's been a goal for the entire year and I'm sure (South) probably had the same goal and wants it, too. On top of that it's your rival and on Senior Night so, yeah, it's definitely a big game."
North Medford has won seven straight games entering tonight's finale, while South has won four straight. The Tornado and Panthers are both comfortable in the power rankings at fourth and sixth, respectively, with Jesuit, Central Catholic and Lake Oswego securing the top three spots. West Linn is fifth and Lincoln seventh.
Like last season, North Medford has high hopes of making a late surge in pursuit of a state title. Seniors Derek Mautz (15.2 points per game), Chris Faust (10.7 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) and Jordan Browne-Moore (8.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have been the catalysts throughout the season, along with senior Trey Garfas (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg).
It was Garfas who helped set the stage for tonight's big game with a blocked shot in the waning seconds of a 48-46 win at Grants Pass last Friday.
The Panthers have been led by their own senior trio — Matt Retzlaff, Jack Delaney and Jack Singler — whose scoring output has been within an eyelash of each other this season at around 12 points apiece. South has endured the loss of senior Jeff Sarsona and junior Jesse Mondry at various times this season, with Mondry stepping up his play as of late and Sarsona a potential returner tonight after spraining his Achilles' tendon on Feb. 6.
"There's no question it's a huge challenge for us," Murphy said of tonight's game. "We just are thankful we're in the position we are and we're going over there to play as well as we can and as hard as we can and be smart and try to give ourselves a chance. North's a great basketball team, there's no question about it. They're going to come in with a great focus, too, because both of us know what's on the line."
Tonight's freshman game will be at 4:30 p.m. in the upper gym, with the JV at 5:15 on the main floor and the varsity following.
THE STAKES AREN'T as high when the North Medford and South Medford girls square off for the third time this season, but Wednesday's matchup still remains noteworthy as the Panthers seek to secure their second straight undefeated SOH campaign.
As has been the case throughout this season, the game was moved back a day to allow more followers to watch the boys and girls play in the matchup between Medford schools. The varsity plays at 7 p.m. on the main floor at South Medford High, with the freshman and JV teams each playing at 5:15 p.m.
The South Medford girls are ranked No. 1 in the state at 23-0 overall and 11-0 in SOH play, while North Medford is 10-12 and 3-8.
The game won't be the last of the regular season for the Panthers, however. South Medford has added an endowment game against fourth-ranked St. Mary's Academy of Portland, with tipoff in the Panther gym set at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Besides a quality showdown with another of the state's top programs, Saturday's game will also serve as a benefit for cancer screenings for under-insured women through Providence Medical Center. South Medford is aiming for a pink-out through a pre-sale package that includes admission to the game and commemorative "Proudly Pink Panther" T-shirts.
For more info or to purchase ticket packages for the endowment game, call 210-8662 or visit www.ladypantherhoops.com
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry