• Panthers remain loaded for repeat run at 6A title

  • Even before the South Medford girls basketball team secured its first-ever state championship Saturday night, the question kept coming up from all corners at Portland's Rose Garden.
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  • Even before the South Medford girls basketball team secured its first-ever state championship Saturday night, the question kept coming up from all corners at Portland's Rose Garden.
    As primed for a title as the Panthers were, it was difficult for those on hand to forego peeking into the future and wondering if somehow they might be able to win it all again and again.
    When you start three juniors, one sophomore and one senior — and bring a freshman off the bench who happened to be a fill-in starter for about one-third of the season — it's natural to ponder the possibility.
    Heck, even Panthers head coach Tom Cole hadn't stepped foot outside the winning locker room Saturday night before his attention turned to such matters.
    "It's exciting because we're not winning the state championship and leaving the cupboard bare," said the fifth-year head coach. "This is a state championship that has a full fridge, and we're excited about it. We'll be back."
    Whether "back" means another undefeated run is doubtful considering how difficult of an undertaking that is for a team, but in line for another trip to the state tournament is certainly plausible — if not downright expected — for the young Panthers.
    "You get up here and nothing is easy, though," added Cole, "so we won't be taking anything for granted."
    Even with only three graduating seniors in starter Tess Picknell and reserves Leilani Morris and Lupita Vargas, next year's lineup expects to pack an imposing, albeit different, punch than the 2011-12 version.
    Losing Picknell, who stands 6-foot-5, and Morris, who's 6-3, will definitely put a crimp in the fear factor the Panthers were able to utilize all season. There was a marked difference in how teams approached the basket with Picknell patrolling the paint, and the Panther program doesn't have another such player in their back pocket for the future.
    While some might question her offensive prowess, there's no question the Stanford-bound Picknell was on the minds of opposing players every time they stepped on the court due to her shot-blocking prowess. Driving shots were rushed, pull-up jumpers came from a little farther out than usual and second-chance opportunities were severely limited with Picknell in the middle. Her presence also made it easier for others to get out in transition, knowing Picknell could handle the rebounding duties with limited help.
    The returning firepower of proven scorers Kylie Towry (junior), Yaremi Mejia (junior), Ashley Bolston (sophomore) and Andee Ritter (freshman) should help make up for any point differential, but it's important to note that the Panthers won their state title by leaning on their defensive abilities as much as anything. South Medford led the state tournament in scoring defense (47 points per game) and blocked shots (14), and teams shot a tournament-low 30.1 percent against them. Marquee games against Central Catholic and Westview in the semifinals and finals, respectively, were turned on South's ability to force premier playmakers like the Rams' Jordan Reynolds and Kailee Johnson and the Wildcats' Jaime Nared into their worst shooting nights of the tournament.
    That said, the aforementioned quartet of returners — along with junior Luisa Tago, who still stands as the team's unsung hero in my opinion — are sound defenders in their own right. Instead of being physically imposing, however, that group plays defense like a swarm of bees you just can't shake until the ball is eventually turned over. Putting Bolston, who stands 6-foot, and the 5-10 Ritter at the top of a pressing defense created havoc all season for opponents due to their quickness and ability to eat up space with their wing spans.
    "Ashley has been an unsung defender all season long and I think now her and Andee have made names for themselves here on a state level," Cole said Saturday. "Ashley's performances at this tournament defensively were incredible. Her length and ability to take the best player on the floor, between her and Ritter, we just wouldn't be here without those two and their defensive aggressiveness."
    That's where the Panthers might be able to take it up even another notch next year, putting five interchangeable parts on the court to come at teams with a balance few can counter. All five key returners already know how to play together — it was even that group that started the second half in Saturday's final against Westview — and every one of them can take a rebound the length of the court if need be or step to the top of what should shape up as a daunting full-court press.
    "Everybody has an opportunity to step up," said Cole of his team's uncanny balance.
    What also has paid off, and hopefully will continue, is the team unity showed by Cole's Panthers. As long as someone is scoring, there really isn't much thought into who it is. The same goes for rebounds and assists and any other statistic we hang such prominence upon.
    "They move the ball well, they share the ball, they know where each other are ... I mean they just always get to the right spot," Westview head coach Lindsay Strothers said of the Panthers' impressive team play.
    South led the tournament in scoring at 61.7 points per game and was second in field goal percentage (40.3 percent), rebound average (36.7 per game), assists (13 per game) and third in steals (9.7 per game). One name came up big in almost every category (point guard Yaremi Mejia) and yet she was nowhere to be found on the all-tournament list — and that's primarily because the Panthers play with such unity and balance it's almost difficult to stand out.
    "Yaremi Mejia has two great performances (in the semifinals and finals), she's not on the all-tournament team and there's not a blink, nothing, from her because I think it's always been about a bigger goal than the individual stuff," said Cole of his team's leading scorer in Portland at 13.7 points per game.
    First-team selection Towry (12 ppg) and the second-team Ritter (10.3 ppg) also averaged in double figures at the Rose Garden, while the first-teamer Picknell led the tourney with eight blocked shots and 37 rebounds (12.3 per game). Bolston was third in assists (4.0 per game), while Mejia and Ritter ranked fifth with eight steals apiece. Towry played the most for the Panthers at 29.7 minutes per contest, which ranked fifth.
    Such positive experiences on the final stage should only pay dividends for next season, along with another summer for each to work on taking their game to another level. From last year to this season, Towry added a post-up game and better ballhandling to her repertoire, Mejia became a better long-range shooter and Bolston carried herself with more confidence on the court.
    The exciting thing is how much better this team could be with more offseason diligence.
    Will Bolston be more aggressive and confident to take a game over? Can Ritter improve her shooting percentage on slashes to the basket? How much more well-rounded can Towry, Mejia and Tago be as seniors? Can eighth-grade wonder Julissa Tago have an impact as a freshman similar to the one produced by Ritter and those who came before like Towry, Mejia, et. al? Will junior Monique Sprang and freshman Keyari Sleezer, who were varsity members but played mostly at the JV level, and their fellow underclassmen push hard enough to make sure there's no drop-off when South turns to the bench?
    Only time will tell for such answers, but the good thing is these are the types of questions surrounding the Panthers now-championship program.
    "There are worse problems to have," Cole nodded in ode to taking over an 0-24 program in 2007. "No matter what happens from now on, though, the good news is we've already gotten one."
    Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry
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