While South Medford's top-ranked girls basketball team is the headline act to a Southern Oregon Hybrid campaign that begins tonight for all but the Panthers, the story of the year thus far may be the turnaround in full bloom at Crater High.
With David Heard again guiding the program, the Comets are enjoying their best start in years — and doing it with essentially the same group of girls who last season endured the school's first losing campaign since 1994-95.
A year after going 7-17 overall and 1-11 in SOH play, Crater enters tonight's game at home against North Medford with an 11-1 record and brimming with confidence.
"I think for us the success has come with the kids' ability to adjust well to a change in style and, for the most part, we've stayed really healthy," Heard said on Monday. "I think the kids are excited with how they're playing and they're having fun. That's one of the biggest things for me is getting back to them enjoying themselves."
Winning, of course, soothes all that ails but Heard said it's more than that for his tight-knit group.
"We have a good chemistry going on," said the coach, who returned to the bench on an interim basis in 2005-06 but originally led Crater for eight years beginning with the 1994-95 season. "Courtney Setzer, in a recent TV interview, called it a sisterhood, and I really think that fits who we are."
There certainly is a natural family atmosphere given that Heard has two daughters — senior Monica and freshman Mallory — and cousin Becca Heard on this year's squad. The camaraderie, however, goes further when you consider almost the entire group saw playing time last year.
Junior post Courtney Setzer and senior guard Becca Heard have been the team's mainstays this year as its most consistent performers, while sophomore post Destiny Fahndrich, sophomore guard Cheyenne Scott and point guard Mallory Heard round out the starting five.
The 5-foot-11 Setzer averages just over 16 points and eight rebounds per game, while Becca Heard, at 5-8, is averaging just over 13 points and six rebounds.
From there, the best thing about the Comets is they're able to keep coming at teams with waves of talent that includes Monica Heard — one of only three seniors — and juniors Bailey Bascom and Kes Noles, among others.
Bascom came off the bench to score 19 points one night, while Scott hit for 19 the next. Even swing player Jacie Gavin came in one game, Heard said, and hit three 3-pointers to spark a Comet team that's outscoring opponents 59-37 on average.
"We have a lot of interchangeable parts," said coach Heard. "I have 10 kids that can play and they all can play each position so that allows us to do some different things."
Playing to that strength, Heard has altered the style of play for the Comets, utilizing more of a full-court, aggressive style instead of the half-court, man-to-man approach they had.
"The style is more up-tempo and kind of more suited to what we have," said the coach, who posted a 176-57 record in his prior nine seasons with the Comets. "We're really small and it's hard for us to rebound sometimes, and we're not shooting as well from the perimeter as I thought we should, but we're fast, we're deep and they all play hard."
It's not exactly the same lineup that made Crater one of the premiere girls basketball programs in the state during Heard's heyday — finishing runner-up at the state tournament's highest classification in 1998, 2000 and 2001 — but the promise is there. Heard said this year's conference schedule should provide a good gauge on how close the Comets are to where they need to be.
Beyond South Medford's status as one of the state's elite after two straight trips to the Class 6A championship game, Roseburg boasts a strong roster that is much more capable than its 4-7 record shows given the Indians have lost twice each to top-10 teams Clackamas and Canby and has close losses to Westview and Corvallis.
Grants Pass and North Medford have also had impressive moments entering league play, leaving Heard to wonder how it will all play out as his Comets, who are No. 5 in the Class 6A power rankings, venture through the SOH gauntlet.
"Some of it I'm out of touch with this year so I'm still learning because it's different than it was before," said Heard, who left coaching before Oregon bumped from four classifications to six. "The power rankings are all new to me and it's all hard to know where we fit right now so I think (the conference schedule) will help us figure all that out a little bit."
However it pans out, it can't be much worse than what the girls endured a year ago. The Comets won one game in January — the SOH opener against North Medford — and only three of their final 16 games as injuries and illnesses proved costly.
"Their confidence from last year was pretty low," admitted coach Heard. "They took some real beatings, getting beat by 20, 30, 40 points and even 70 points (90-20 against South Medford). Some games they only scored around 20 points and we're scoring that sometimes in a quarter this season. I think winning 11 games up to now has gotten their confidence back up."
Another positive addition, Heard said, has been that of assistant coach Amy Denson, who was one of the best players to ever come out of the Crater program. Denson was the state player of the year in 2002 and the 6-1 post wrapped up her run with the Comets as the school's leading scorer with 1,326 points. After playing at Arizona State, Denson went on to play professionally overseas and has used all those experiences to come back and help the current group at Crater.
Heard said the team recently watched Denson's senior year highlight video and while the all-around talent of Denson was evident, another thing stood out that got the players just as excited.
"They saw video footage of what it was like to have the gym at Crater full of people, with the top bleachers out and the stands packed with fans," said Heard. "All they could say was wouldn't it be cool if the stands were like that now, and I told them that we can measure our success by that. If the stands are full then that has to mean we're pretty successful because people want to see them play."
That may be a ways off, but the Comets certainly appear on the right track.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry