Getting back to the state finals might be easier for the defending champs this time around.
Just don't tell Tom Cole that.
"At this stage of the game, you certainly can't take any team for granted," the South Medford girls head basketball coach said.
The Panthers (20-4), who finished second in the OSAA power rankings, will begin their defense of the Class 6A state crown without immediate threats from leading challengers. Top-ranked Oregon City (22-1), fourth-ranked Central Catholic (21-3) and fifth-ranked Westview (18-4) are on the opposite side of the eight-team bracket.
South opens play in the quarterfinals tonight against seventh-ranked St. Mary's Academy of Portland (19-7) — a squad it beat by 12 points in December. The winner advances to the semifinals to face the winner between second-ranked Clackamas (19-5) and sixth-ranked Tigard (21-3).
Of note is the final coaches poll, which ranks Central Catholic first, South Medford second, Oregon City third, Westview fourth and Clackamas fifth.
Last year, the Panthers went up against Central Catholic in the semifinals and then played Westview in the title contest.
The way the chips fell this time around, the Panthers would not have to worry about Tennessee-bound guard Jordan Reynolds (Central Catholic), Stanford-bound center Kailee Johnson (Central Catholic), Santa Clara-bound post Jo Paine (Oregon City) or national prospect Jaime Nared (a junior wing at Westview) until the championship.
So is it safe to pencil South into the title bout?
Not so fast, Cole will say. Let him remind you that Portland's Rose Garden, the venue, has unpredictable effects on young people with its grand size and aura. Let him remind you that ninth-ranked West Linn stunned top-ranked Oregon City last year in the quarterfinals. Let him tell you that there is no time for preconceived notions.
"Upsetting the apple cart was pretty real," said the sixth-year head coach of Oregon City's loss.
This much is certain: the Panthers aren't new to the bright lights (six members of the team played on last season's undefeated squad), nor are they surprised by competition (they took on several nationally ranked teams of all shapes and sizes this year).
South has, however, been working without the services of Tess Picknell, the 6-foot-5 post who is now a Stanford freshman. She loomed large in the Rose City as a high school senior in 2012. Defending the likes of Johnson (6-3) and Nared (6-2) gets a little trickier, Cole said.
The team is now a collection of young, athletic and experienced guards and forwards. Senior guard Kylie Towry led the Panthers in scoring at around 16 points a game, while 6-1 junior guard/forward Ashley Bolston (who has verbally committed to Washington State University) averaged about 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks.
Portland State-bound senior guard Yaremi Mejia scored about 12 points a game, while 6-0 sophomore guard Andee Ritter (a national prospect), senior guard/forward Luisa Tago (who has signed with NCAA Division II Metropolitan State University) and freshman guard Julissa Tago (another national prospect) averaged between nine and 11 points. All six of them led South in scoring during contests throughout the season.
Rounding out the deep mix are freshman forward Jasmin Falls, sophomore guard Keyari Sleezer, sophomore forward MacKenzie Cox and new addition Krystal Williams, a sophomore guard/wing who was added to the playoff roster.
The Panthers shot 48 percent from the field, about 72 percent from the free-throw line and about 40 percent from 3-point range. On the defensive end, they averaged just over 13 steals a game, allowing them to score often in transition.
First up for Panthers are the St. Mary's Academy Blues, whom South topped 70-58 in Portland early in the season. The squad, coached by Art Rojas, finished second in the Mt. Hood Conference and has won 15 of its last 17 games.
Senior point guard Nae Torregano (5-8) leads the Blues.
"They are an extremely athletic team," Cole said. "They possess strong leadership and kids who are pretty seasoned. Torregano is a highly impactful kid who had a really good game against us the last time we played. She creates a lot of mismatches with good size but also has great ball handling skills and good court vision with tremendous range. ... They also have a lot of young talented guards coupled with an inside presence. A couple kids who have size present some matchup issues."
On the other side is South, which has yet to lose to a 6A squad. The Panthers' losses came against 5A defending state champion Springfield in their home opener; to Hoover, Ala., at the Title IX Holiday Invitational Classic in Washington, D.C.; and to St. Mary's of Berkeley, Calif., and St. Mary's of Stockton, Calif., at the Martin Luther King Showcase in Stockton. The Alabama squad and a team from Cleveland, Wash., that South beat in its season opener have both gone on to secure state crowns.
"You've given them challenges," Cole said of his team's season. "We've played and competed at the highest level in hopes that it has an impact for your season. And now we certainly think it has, win or loss. We got better, even in the losses."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org