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South Medford girls basketball coach Tom Cole knew that his team's nonconference schedule would certainly test the Panthers' mettle.
With trips to Portland and Washington, D.C. and California in South Medford's rear mirror as of Monday night, the question now becomes how has such a challenge set the Panthers up for a repeat run at a Class 6A state title.
The answer will be borne out over the next 61/2 weeks through conference and playoff competition, but Cole said Monday that he's content with his team's journey thus far despite four losses — three in out-of-state tournaments — in 15 games.
"I do think it's been worth it," he said of squaring off against other nationally recognized programs beyond Oregon. "I do think it's taken its toll on the kids but it has prepared them to be better. They've seen things this year that they didn't see last year (when we went 30-0). We felt like we needed to be facing the most diverse looks we can get and even in this last game (Monday at St. Mary's of Stockton, Calif.) we faced some things we haven't seen before."
Like most coaches, Cole believes that you can learn more about a team when it's faced with adversity, and often you learn more in defeat than in victory.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy but it was about getting better and preparing us for this last run, which is in the next nine games of our (Southern Oregon Hybrid) season and beyond," he said. "Going 30-0 again was never a concern of ours and once we got over our first loss, that's kinda helped. We learned that we're not trying to have a perfect season because when you play not to lose it's hard to play to win."
The Panthers tasted defeat for the first time in 35 games when defending 5A champion Springfield and 6-foot-5 standout Mercedes Russell posted a 71-63 win at South Medford High. They responded by winning two of their three games at the Title IX Holiday Invitational Conference & Classic Dec. 26-28 in Washington, D.C.
South Medford opened that invitational tourney with a 74-65 win over Riverdale Baptist of Maryland, which is currently 18-2 and ranked No. 23 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25. The Panthers went down to the wire before falling 53-52 in the semifinals to Hoover High, ranked No. 1 in Alabama and 15-4 overall. In the third-place finals of the Platinum Division, South Medford edged Cicero-North of Syracuse, N.Y., 42-40.
After four SOH victories by an average margin of 36.5 points, the Panthers followed a 77-point nonleague win in Ashland last Friday with a 58-50 loss to St. Mary's of Berkeley, Calif., only 24 hours later. The road trip concluded Monday against the hosts of the Martin Luther King Showcase, with South Medford opening a 43-42 lead by halftime on St. Mary's of Stockton, Calif., before coming up short, 84-71, against a Rams team that on Sunday moved to No. 9 in the MaxPreps Freeman Rankings and No. 21 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25.
"The teams that we've lost to have been really tough opponents," said Cole. "Our whole goal this season was to find the competition to get better and I really felt like, despite the loss tonight, we got better. We faced some variables that we couldn't control and really showed what kind of character we have to overcome those in the future. I feel like the kids competed and battled to the end against a really good team."
South Medford was saddled with extreme foul troubles in the first half against St. Mary's and couldn't collectively play its starting unit at any time in the second half but still managed to hold its own against a frenzy of pressure by the Rams.
"We've played some really good teams and we've not faced that kind of athleticism coupled with that style of play where you're trapping everything," said Cole of Monday's game. "When we had all our tools on the floor at the same time, we were successful and up by as much as 10 in the first half. As a team I felt like, at least in the first half, that was the best basketball we'd played all year long."
"As disappointed as I was with the other factors and losing in the end," added the coach, "I felt like tonight they truly understood what it meant to really battle. I feel like that gave them a spirit of toughness and I think that's going to carry with them. They know what it means to play big games, know what it means to play tough, national-caliber competition. Now it's time for us to take the next step, which is why we did this in the first place. We want to finish the season strong and make a run at the Rose Garden."
That first step won't exactly be easy, with the Panthers barely off the road from their quick California excursion before they hit the road again today for a game in Roseburg. The Indians played South Medford tough in their first meeting — the Panthers' first game back from the East Coast — and lost only 66-52.
Staying sharp even when their overall talent somewhat overshadows their SOH competition will provide another test, although Cole believes his team will be able to handle that thanks to the senior leadership provided by Kylie Towry, Yaremi Mejia and Luisa Tago. An added — but necessary — benefit to the team's trials and tribulations is the on-court growth the Panthers have seen in reserves Julissa Tago, Keyari Sleezer, Jasmine Falls and MacKenzie Cox.
"For the younger kids in our program it's been great," said Cole of the rigorous schedule. "They've had a chance to grow up and become more seasoned. They've been thrown to the fire and been tested and I think that helps us in the long run because it creates a deeper bench with kids who have been right there in the battles all along."
Central Catholic (ranked in the top 25 of both MaxPreps polls), Oregon City (No. 14 in the MaxPreps Freeman Rankings) and 6A runner-up Westview still stand as the prime obstacles ahead of the Panthers — who are unranked nationally — but Cole isn't concerned with those thoughts at this time. Like it's been through this whole journey, Cole has put more emphasis on each step than a final destination.
"Sometimes as coaches and as mentors of kids we wrap up a season based on wins and losses but the other part often overlooked is the value of those experiences for kids," said Cole, who also serves as executive director at Kids Unlimited in Medford. "That piece is bigger than basketball and I think they've learned a lot about themselves and, in a bigger perspective, on life in general. They won't be able to tell you the score of the Alabama game or details about it but they will remember being on Capitol Hill where most of the incredible decisions are made for our country."
"If sports is about revealing character and giving kids opportunities to have leadership and gain things from it, these trips have been invaluable to that," he added. "We just hope it translates in the future to more success on the basketball court, but no one can take away that piece in and of itself outside of basketball."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry