North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
Parity will be the name of the game in Southern Oregon Hybrid boys basketball this season, with a host of good teams but none that stands apart from the others in what shapes up as an intriguing title chase.
Four of the five SOH teams received at least one first-place vote and only one point separated the top three teams in recent voting by the conference's coaches in a preseason poll. While each team can make a case for a title run, each can also be backed down by a number of question marks.
"There's too many X-factors to figure out if there is a top person that nobody can catch this year," said Roseburg head coach Craig Stinnett. "That's just not the case in this conference. There are just too many athletes in all those schools and too many good coaches to go up against each night so that makes for no easy games up and down our conference."
Stinnett's Indians received the early nod as SOH favorite but only by the slimmest margin over North Medford and South Medford. Roseburg picked up two of the five first-place votes and totaled 13 points, with North Medford and South Medford each receiving one top selection to tie for second place with 12 points apiece.
Crater, which returns 10 players from a year ago, also scored a first-place vote and landed fourth with nine points, while Grants Pass' relative inexperience slotted the Cavemen fifth with four points.
That said, there isn't a team in the league that doesn't believe it could be the top team and none that are chalking up wins before they step on the court.
"I think it could be one of those years where you've got to win at home and then try to steal a couple victories on the road because it's going to be very tough," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "There's not a lot that separates any of these teams."
The Panthers have won at least a share of 10 of the past 11 conference championships, including last season. Roseburg tied South Medford for the title in 2010-11.
North Medford, which placed a program-best third at last year's state tournament, last won a conference title in 1998-99, while the drought is even greater for Crater (last title in 1989-90). Grants Pass tied South Medford and Roseburg for the conference crown in 2004-05.
"We were hoping to break the string last year and we constantly talk about that being a huge thing for us," North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn about a conference title, "but there's always goals above that one so you can't let that ruin your season if you don't get it."
Roseburg returns the most balance in terms of talent and experience, with starters Kai Seely, Carson Reid and Andrew Weber joined by Hayden Lent, Alex Johnson, Devin Caylor and Drew Groshong to solidify a fluid rotation. Seely was an honorable mention all-SOH pick last year at point guard, while Reid is a dependable scorer and Weber provides a big post presence at 6-foot-7 with good interior ability.
"Last year we took our lumps but now this year we're seasoned and experienced," said Stinnett. "Guys like Kai and Carson and Andrew paid their dues last year and had to fight through some things to figure it out and that made them nothing but better."
"This is a group of guys that can all shoot the ball well and are high basketball IQ kids," he added. "I think if we do the right things, we have every opportunity to be right there in the end."
North Medford carries the same sense of optimism despite only one returning starter in senior point guard Oshea Bailey. Julian Gray saw considerable action off the bench last year when the Black Tornado turned in an impressive 24-4 season, and posts Garrett Knox and Brandon DeBerry also saw time as a varsity reserve.
The key for the Black Tornado will be integrating a young and athletic group of underclassmen into the picture. North Medford has a bevy of ballhandlers in Bailey, Gray, Tristen Holmes and Christian Reyes and expects to fly around on defense and get out in transition on every opportunity.
"I think our talent level is really solid," said Plankenhorn. "We have some true inside posts that we haven't had in the past so we'll have more of an inside game, our defense is pretty sound and Oshea is doing a good job of leading us now."
Bailey, Gray and Holmes primarily will look to attack the basket, while junior post Aaron Browne-Moore fills the shoes of his graduated older brother Jordan on the interior. The younger Browne-Moore is slightly taller and more adept at low-post moves, although Jordan Browne-Moore's intensity and fadeaway shot will be missed.
Knox is a solid 6-5 threat in the post, while few in the league carry the sturdy frame that the 6-7 DeBerry provides off the bench. North expects to be deep with a solid and versatile core of reserves.
"The guys really share the ball well and consistently move the ball trying to get that good shot where we may not have been as patient before in the last few years," said Plankenhorn.
Patience will definitely be the name of the game across town at South Medford, where the Panthers return part-time starters Adrian Garcia and Jesse Mondry and surround them with a relatively unproven supporting cast. South Medford took a huge hit during the football season when sturdy 6-6 post Sam Curtius suffered a knee injury that will keep him off the court this year.
"It was really big to lose Sam," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "I think he was looking forward to a heck of a senior year and so were we. You have a post presence and really a two-year starting guy that's gone and that's a big hole to fill."
Garcia is a dependable floor leader with big-game experience and a dedication to both ends of the floor, while the 6-5 Mondry is incredibly athletic but will need to develop more consistency and intensity in his game for the Panthers to enjoy their usual success.
Junior wing Mark Winans provides a scoring boost to the lineup after he was a key figure for North Medford last season. Winans has the ability to stretch defenses with his perimeter touch and displays a knack for being in the right spot at the right time.
Wings Matt Toreson (senior) and Ben Orndoff (junior) are also steady performers with good shooting touch, with 6-5 juniors Tristian Lallo and CJ Keepes hoping to provide some interior scoring with their athleticism and non-stop motors. The Panthers also picked up a pair of junior transfers from Phoenix who hope to integrate quickly into the system in Bryson Carpenter and Trenton Monical.
The ability for South Medford to dial up more energy on the defensive end and show more determination on offense will be key to its early development.
"I think we have a chance at ending up being pretty good but we have a long way to go," said Murphy.
Crater provides the most intrigue of any of the teams in that it's not the Comets' talent or depth that comes into play, it's their ability to finish out games.
"It's been kind of a long dry spell, especially at the 6A level, for Crater basketball and learning how to win at that top level is a difficult proposition," said Comets head coach John Parent. "We can teach X's and O's, and I think the kids understand that, but the little things that it takes to win is obviously going to determine how we do. Getting over that hump, and believing that you can get over, is the most challenging thing."
Crater boasts three returning starters in seniors Cody Dismukes, RJ Morgan and Evan Erskine and seven others who were a steady part of the rotation last season. Dismukes, a 6-3 forward, joins Seely and Bailey as early favorites for conference player of the year with his ability to attack the basket and deft touch from the perimeter.
"He's arguably one of the top five talented kids in the state physically," said Parent of last year's second-team all-SOH pick. "We obviously expect big things out of him."
Morgan is a hard-nosed player inside and can step out to knock down 3-pointers, while Erskine is solid at the point guard and excels as a defender. Tommy Stewart is another player who gives a determined effort on both sides of the court, while 6-7 center Connor Lane has developed his low-post game.
The Comets don't fall off when they dip into the reserves, allowing Parent to shuffle in player after player to remain fresh.
"These kids are as good of a group of kids as you'll ever meet and they've worked their tails off," said Parent. "We'll definitely be competitive and I think that we have the potential to be the conference champions, but will that be shown or not is the main question."
With no returning starters at Grants Pass, returners Micah Johnson and Dylan Strempel will join junior point guard Brian Luther in playing a key role to make things difficult for the rest of the SOH. Each are capable scorers and willing passers, with 6-8 post Drake Brennan clogging the lanes in his return to the court after being sidelined by injury a year ago.
Junior Sean Brooks expects to give the Cavemen a scoring lift with hustle plays and a non-stop motor.
"What we're focusing on this year is trying to lay that groundwork to be able to compete now and allow us to take another step and be better later down the road, too," said GP head coach Jeff Huston.