Forced out as the head football coach at Eagle Point High in January, Jacob Schauffler wasn't sure what direction he would go in the early aftermath...
If the Southern Oregon Hybrid was a movie, the South Medford girls basketball team would be the leading actress.
Just how prominent a role everybody else in the league plays is still up in the air. This much is certain though: The top-ranked Panthers appear to have another blockbuster on their hands.
With a cast of NCAA Division I talent, a 33-game winning streak that dates back to last year's perfect Class 6A state championship run and a buzz louder than killer bees surrounding it, South was easily the SOH coaches' unanimous favorite to win the five-team conference.
Behind the Panthers in the voting was Roseburg, followed closely by North Medford, Crater and Grants Pass.
League play begins Jan. 2 with the Indians hosting the Cavers and the Black Tornado welcoming in the Comets. The top three teams from the SOH automatically qualify for the OSAA's 32-team state-playoff bracket.
Roseburg, which has struggled in the recent past, is optimistic with heralded transfer Pele Gianotti, standout returner Shelby Snook and several others with experience guiding the way.
North, led once again by former Black Tornado head coach Tim Karrick, features some capable taller seniors in Sierra Randleman (6-foot), McKensey Peters (5-11) and Maryssa Becker (6-0), a Louisville-bound softball player who has returned to the hardwood.
Crater lost some important seniors like Kelly Ferris, Kasidy Cobb and Alix Young but brings back a pair of players with some starting experience in sophomore Courtney Setzer (a 5-11 wing) and senior guard Britt Scott along with savvy head coach in J.T. Thomas.
Grants Pass no longer has former standout post Annie Edgar but is well-stocked with familiar faces.
The spotlight, of course, is on South.
Do the Panthers have national attention? Check. South is listed in the "best of the rest" section of USA Today's Super 25 rankings and, last year, was ranked much higher during its run toward a state crown. The Panthers went 30-0.
Do the Panthers have colleges swooning over head coach Tom Cole's talent? Check. Ashley Bolston, a 6-1 junior guard/forward, has received dozens of offers from DI schools representing the Pacific-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Western Athletic conferences, and she continues to gain more attention daily, Cole said. Coaches love her length, size and control as a wing, among other things.
Ditto for sophomore Andee Ritter (a 6-0 guard), who has been offered a scholarship from a DI program on the West Coast, senior guard Kylie Towry and injured senior guard/forward Luisa Tago.
Do the Panthers have a hot streak? Check. South hasn't lost a conference game since Feb. 17, 2010, and its stretch of 26 straight league triumphs appears destined to grow by 12 by season's end.
Do the Panthers have experience? Check. South owns a mix of well-versed guards and forwards. Senior point guard Yaremi Mejia, a Portland State signee, leads the show, with Bolston, Ritter, Towry and freshman college prospect Julissa Tago (filling in for her injured older sister Luisa) playing along at a breaking-speed-limits pace.
Julissa Tago garnered attention in an ESPN article for her confidence and flare at the West Coast Fall Showcase in Rancho Cucamonga, Calf., earlier in the year. She and her teammates traveled the nation to play some of the best teams around during the summer and have loaded up on tough nonconference challenges this winter.
Rounding out the mix for South are freshman Jasmine Falls (a 5-11 forward), and sophomores Keyari Sleezer (a 5-9 guard) and MacKenzie Cox (a 5-10 forward).
"Usually the good teams have one or two good players, but they have five studs starting and then the first four girls off the bench are incredible," Karrick said.
Luisa Tago will miss four to six weeks with a knee injury suffered in the season opener, Cole said. Julissa is a worthy replacement, he added.
"(Julissa's) not your typical freshman," said Cole, who enters his sixth year. "This kid comes in with a different kind of bravado, a different sort of confidence and versatility. ... Her confidence level as a freshman is definitely something different than I've ever coached before."
The one thing South can't check off is significant height. The Panthers graduated 6-5 center Tess Picknell (now playing at Stanford) and 6-3 post Leilani Morris (now at Umpqua Community College). Cole said the team will play similarly to how it operated when Picknell was out with an injury during a stretch last year, using its speed and versatility to its advantage.
At Roseburg, the Indians (who were 8-17 last year) feature Riddle High transfer Gianotti, a versatile 6-0 junior who broke the freshman state scoring record with the Irish. She played mostly guard for Riddle, averaging a double-double and receiving first-team all-state honors in her first two prep seasons. Snook, who has led Roseburg in scoring in year's past, senior Jacyln Humphry and junior Fiona Johnson are the squad's returning starters.
At North Medford, Becker, Peters and Randleman form a strong nucleus along with junior point guard Joci Ellis and sophomore wing/guard Sydney Thomas.
Katie Williamson and Haley Hogue are helpful additions, said Karrick, who took over for Kailey Bostwick. North was 11-14 last winter.
At Central Point, the Comets — who were 17-8 overall and second in the SOH last year — will rely heavily on starters Scott, Setzer, Monica Heard, Becca Heard and Emmie Gavin.
"They are a pretty diligent group who had a good summer," Thomas said. "It's early yet and the rigors are a little different in the regular season than in the summertime."
At Grants Pass, the Cavers have five players with some starting experience. Alexa Phillips will lead at point guard, with Kayla Bice likely to provide some steady scoring. Grants Pass was 8-17 last season.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org