The summer circuit has always played an important role in building the girls basketball program for South Medford High head coach Tom Cole and the past few months have been no different for the Panthers and their leader.
With the bulk of last season's title team in tow, plus a few new faces, South Medford has enjoyed increased visibility this summer that comes from a 30-0 run during the high school season and a wealth of young talent that's already turning heads of college recruiters.
One key piece of that championship puzzle, however, has taken a different path this summer to broaden her own horizons and incoming senior Kylie Towry said Friday that she's glad the Panthers are enjoying the best of both worlds. Towry is currently in San Diego with the Washington-based Columbia Cascades team for the Mid Summer Nights Madness Western Championships, which run today through Tuesday.
"It's just been a fun new experience for me," Towry said while lounging at the beach on a rare off day, "but it's also nice to hear from them, knowing that they're still doing good without me."
The Panthers won their division at the Showtime National Championships in Los Angeles on Wednesday and also boast a third-place showing at the San Diego Classic after missing a title shot with a two-point loss in the semifinals.
They also competed in the End of the Trail Tournament earlier in July, hosted by Oregon City, and took part in the Northwest Summer Showcase in Auburn, Wash., with a loaded Team Concept winning both titles after strong showings by Central Catholic's Kailee Johnson and Jordan Reynolds, Springfield's Mercedes Russell and Westview's Jaime Nared.
"Our goal going into the summer and when they went into the spring was that we want to play against the best teams in the country," said Cole, whose group competed as a high school squad instead of the usual club teams filled with area all-stars. "We were not worried about keeping the perfect record but being challenged to play the most elite teams in the country."
Towry likely would have made an impact in the Panthers' results this summer but Cole admitted some late scheduling on his part created enough uncertainty that the 5-foot-9 standout had to make sure she had some elite opportunities this summer.
"That kind of hampered Kylie because she was waiting and this is a big summer for her, so when it came up she jumped on the Columbia opportunity," said Cole, who completely understood and supported the move.
It's been a new atmosphere for Towry, but one that she said was probably necessary if she was to be fully ready for playing beyond high school.
"I've played for Tom since fifth grade so getting a chance to play for a different coach I think kinda gets me more ready," she said. "I'm coming up on my senior year and eventually going to go off and have a different coach and I think it's good to see a different coach's perspective and have to adapt to a new style and different girls as teammates."
Playing for Al Aldridge on the Cascades squad, Towry has been a driving force for her summer team and had some major highlights of her own entering this weekend's final tourney. Her team finished second to the Northwest Blazers Orange in the Silver Bracket at the End of the Trail tourney — that team also beat South Medford in a slightly closer game in the second round — and Towry was one of four players named to the second-place MVP list.
"It was exciting," Towry said of first learning of her honor. "That's never happened to me before so it's really exciting to get that award for such a big tournament."
She certainly earned the honor, hitting a late 3-pointer in two games that sparked her team to victory and then breaking a tie in the final 20 seconds of another with a five-point play. In the latter, she drained a 3-pointer and then was fouled well after the shot to receive a pair of free throws.
Towry's biggest moment, however, came at the Music City Madness tourney in Nashville, Tenn., when she dropped 48 points in a runaway win over Oregon City. Her Cascades team went on to finish second in its bracket to the New Mexico Heat, with Northwest Blazers Orange earning the outright title.
"I had 12 (3-pointers) and I was just going out," she said of her career high. "I think it definitely kinda kicked in knowing that it was Oregon City because that's a big school here in Oregon and you always hear talk about them. I didn't really want to lose that game."
Towry said she didn't feel much different leading up to her outburst, which interestingly enough came after a game in which Columbia had struggled with its shooting and changed its warm-up routine to include as many pregame shots as possible.
"My arm was warm and I just started shooting out there and they all were going in," said Towry. "It felt so good. It was nice, I'd just throw it up and think it was off and then all of a sudden it would go in."
Towry has regularly kept in contact with Cole this summer via text messages, and such a showing did not go unnoticed.
"Kylie hitting 48 was huge," said Cole. "It's a big number. We all thought that was pretty awesome."
With Towry on board, the Panthers won the Arizona Nike Tournament of Champions in April. Without her, Cole said the team had to alter its approach a bit but has enjoyed standout showings from a balanced starting group that features incoming seniors Yaremi Mejia and Luisa Tago, junior Ashley Bolston, sophomore Andee Ritter and freshman Julissa Tago.
"I never think not having one of your best players is beneficial but what it has done is given a chance for an incoming freshman like Julissa to be in a starting role and have more minutes," said Cole. "It's been beneficial only because it did give lots of other kids more chance at playing and more responsibilities. We did the same thing last year when we played a lot of top events without Tess (Picknell) and that made those younger kids play better because they got more opportunities."
All five starters have averaged double-digit scoring to provide a glimpse at what the Panthers will look like when they go in defense of their Class 6A state championship in the 2012-13 season.
"We've been led in scoring by almost every kid on the team that's played with us this summer," added Cole. "Our hope is to be able to have a team with 10 kids who can all contribute, who can really come in and play meaningful roles all the time, and we're closer to that having had the kind of experiences we've had this summer."
Bolston, who now stands 6-1, and the 6-foot Ritter have been the recipients of a lot of recruiting interest this summer, and the younger Tago has already turned heads despite having yet to take her first freshman class. Cole said Ritter received an offer this summer from Gonzaga, and the interest in the younger players has helped draw attention to the entire group.
"It's been a successful summer," said the coach, "but the hard work's definitely not over."