North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
As the only two teams to go winless during last year's Class 6A boys basketball state tournament, odds are good that South Medford and Central Catholic will be chomping at the bit when the teams square off tonight in a quarterfinals matchup at the Rose Garden.
That matchup will be one of several compelling storylines at the eight-team event in Portland, along with Jesuit's search for a fifth straight state title and Lake Oswego's bid for an undefeated season.
"We surely are appreciative of the fact that we're in the final eight," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy, "but we'd like to get over the hump and that's not an easy task when you're playing a Central Catholic team that is seeded third overall."
"We come in under the wire and definitely the underdog in this whole thing," added Murphy. "Nobody thought we would still be playing by any means or even to the point where we end up ranked sixth in the (state power rankings), so there's really not a lot of pressure on us."
The No. 3-ranked Rams (22-4) bring a 13-game winning streak into tonight's 6:30 game against the seventh-ranked Panthers (21-5), who have won 14 of their last 15 games. Each team is a conference champion, and each make their fortunes on the defensive end of the court.
It's the effort on defense, combined with the ability to execute on offense against whatever pressure is applied, that will dictate which team earns the right to take a day off before the semifinals or is thrown back into the fire Thursday morning.
"I remember from last year it was really aggressive and the teams got into you really aggressively on defense," said South Medford senior Matt Toreson. "The game's played a lot different up there in Portland so we need to just come out with a better effort and be ready for it to be that way."
Central Catholic is led by 6-foot-7 senior post Austin Dyer, who has committed to Azusa Pacific, and a backcourt combination of senior shooter Mitchell Franz and sophomore point guard Deante Strickland. Dyer and Franz were starters last season for the Rams, while Strickland was one of the main players off the bench.
Dyer is strong on the blocks but capable of stepping out and shooting from the perimeter. He averaged a team-best 12 points and 8.5 rebounds at last year's state tournament and has ramped up his play this year in preparation for a third straight tourney experience. Dyer is averaging 16.6 points and eight rebounds for the Rams this season, and recently was invited to play in the annual Oregon-Washington all-star game.
Providing a nice complement has been the 6-foot Franz, who is averaging 12 points per game, and 5-9 Strickland, who averages almost nine points per game but notched a team-high 20 points in Central Catholic's 78-70 overtime victory against Century in the second round. Strickland is adept at penetrating and kicking out to shooters like Franz, and also hit two clutch free throws with 1.7 seconds left to send the Century game into overtime.
"Against Central Catholic it's really going to have to start for us on the defensive end," said Murphy. "They're going to want to push the ball and get up the court and score a bunch of points."
Sophomore guard Xavier Hallinan also averages nearly nine points per game for a Rams team that's outscored its foes 66-53 thus far. Senior Simon Noling and junior Ryan Nall also have limited state tournament experience.
South Medford counters with a balanced, team-first mentality that has served the inexperienced Panthers well throughout the season but doesn't lead to any eye-popping statistics. Senior Jesse Mondry and junior Mark Winans are the only players averaging double figures, but seniors Adrian Garcia and Toreson and junior CJ Keepes each score at least six points per game.
"Really a big part of this is going to end up falling on the shoulders of our three seniors," said Murphy, "but all of our guys have to step up and play as well, if not better, than they've played to this point. The fellas need to be ready to embrace their roles, from the starting guy to the ones coming off the bench for even a couple minutes, because it's all very important."
Mondry is averaging 12 points and five rebounds and Winans is at 11 points, but each have stepped up their scoring in the playoffs — as have the Panthers, who have scored at least 70 points in each playoff game after reaching that figure only once in the regular season.
South Medford has shown a willingness and faith to go 10-deep in its player rotation throughout the season, and has been clutch down the stretch to close out tight ballgames.
"It's gonna take a lot of hard work and making shots," Garcia said of finding success in Portland. "We know all the teams up there are good, but they're all beatable, too."