Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
The top-ranked South Medford girls basketball team is looking up at a super-sized challenge.
A 6-foot-5 challenge to be exact.
Springfield senior post Mercedes Russell, who is considered the nation's top player in her class, and the Millers (3-0) take on the Panthers (4-0) at 7 p.m. on Friday at South Medford High in a marquee matchup.
The Tennessee-bound Russell averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and five assists last season while guiding Springfield to a second straight Class 5A state title. ESPN's HoopGurlz recruiting service lists her as the nation's No. 1 player, and Russell essentially had her pick of NCAA Division I schools.
While mentioning Russell's high-scoring role for the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Women's U17 World Championships, South Medford head coach Tom Cole said players of her caliber "go on to make millions. She is of that pedigree."
In the other corner is South, the defending 6A state champion with a collection of DI-level talent. The Panthers, led by seniors Yaremi Mejia (5-7), Kylie Towry (5-9), junior Ashley Bolston (6-1), sophomore Andee Ritter (6-0) and freshman Julissa Tago (5-9), have weapons to be certain, but what they do not possess is a body matching Russell's stature. Bolston is tallest on the team.
So what must the Panthers do to stop Russell and the Millers, who are ranked 18th nationally by USA Today?
"We have to neutralize what (Russell) can do to us," Cole said. "To say you have a plan to stop her would be pretty ambitious to say the least, but a plan to neutralize her and require other kids to beat us. She will be a handful with and without the ball. We expect to play good team defense like we have been and we know we have some other tools that create some matchup issues for them too."
Last year, South beat Springfield 50-46. The 6-5 Tess Picknell, who now plays at Stanford, and Bolston were the primary defenders of Russell, who finished with 25 points and 13 rebounds. Russell, who got Picknell in foul trouble, made nine of her 14 free-throw attempts.
"(Bolston) is up for the challenge again," Cole said.
The Panthers have yet to face anyone of Russell's height so far; however, in their 70-67 win over Westview earlier this month, they had their hands full against 6-2 standout Jaime Nared, who went off for 32 points.
"We think we got better from that game for sure," Cole said.
The home meeting is the first of just eight total this season for South, which finds itself mostly on the road.
"A game like this gives this community a chance to see really incredible talent on the floor at the same time," Cole said. "How often does a girl who dunks a basketball get the chance to play down here? Not very often."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org