Tonight's regular-season finale figures to be a special one for South Medford's Ben Orndoff.
Senior nights have a way of doing that but, in Orndoff's case, it means a little more because he wasn't sure he would be in the position he's in today.
A 4.0 student with immense athleticism and personality, the bounce that's in Orndoff's step these days wasn't quite there one year ago.
The 6-foot-2 wing played a limited role as a reserve player for the Panthers during his junior season and, like many in his position, he began to question whether he wanted to continue with the sport he's loved since taking the court as a fourth-grader.
He wanted more playing time and more responsibilities on the team and struggled at times to keep his head up when things weren't going his way. After competing in track and field and giving it some thought following the school year, Orndoff made the tough decision to give up his basketball pursuits.
"I was just upset with everything and decided that I wasn't going to play this year," he admits. "I didn't do really anything over the summer with basketball other than volunteering 100-plus hours at Kids Unlimited for their basketball academy."
He caught some grief for his decision, and Orndoff says rightfully so, but stepping back also gave him an opportunity to reevaluate his situation. What he found was that he was a big part of the problem.
Two weeks prior to basketball tryouts, Orndoff made his change of heart official.
"My parents left it all up to me so it became a personal thing for me and I had a lot of time to reflect on my decision," he says. "It was a gut check moment and I decided I was being very selfish as a teammate. If I was going to play a sport, especially a team sport like basketball, it needed to be always about the team more than myself. I went into this year with the mindset of team over self, and it's been a great learning experience for me."
Likewise, Orndoff's presence — and more mature approach — has been pivotal in leading the 10th-ranked Panthers to their fourth straight Southern Oregon Hybrid championship.
South Medford enters tonight's game against Grants Pass with a 10-1 record in conference and 17-6 overall, propelling the Panthers to the No. 5 spot in the Class 6A state power rankings.
"He truly has surpassed anything I thought would happen for him," says South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "Even from where he started from the beginning of the season to where he is now, he's truly made himself one of the best basketball players we have in this conference."
"In some ways he's come out of nowhere," adds Murphy. "I don't think anybody in our league thought he was going to end up doing things in our league that he's done, but he's certainly been a top contributor."
For Orndoff, his importance lies well beyond the numbers most lean toward when determining value.
He leads the league champions with 12.3 points per game — up to 13.4 in SOH play to rank second in conference — to go with 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Where he really shines is on the defensive end in his role as stopper for the Panthers, along with his ability to spark the team with nonstop energy.
"This season has been a lot of fun and definitely a huge transition from last year," says Orndoff. "I've had to play a lot bigger role by defending the other team's best player, by being a better teammate and encouraging my team and it's just been a lot better experience for me."
In speaking with Murphy about returning for his senior season, one common theme for Orndoff was to have no regrets when he looks back on his high school career. As someone who plans on becoming a pediatrician, this may be his last competitive season in basketball and he's attacked each game with that mentality.
"He's a great kid and fun to be around "» a little silly, actually, but very, very bright," says Murphy. "He's athletic and extremely quick, and that helps to begin with, but he's a very smart kid who now has figured out what to do and how to do it and takes it to heart and really cares about helping the team be the best it can be."
It all begins with defense, where Orndoff has embraced the task of guarding each opponent's top scoring threats and typically has held them below their scoring average.
"He truly makes the effort," says Murphy. "He's tough-minded and a little ornery and we like that "» good defenders have to be like that. When guys score on him, he takes it personal."
North Medford junior Tristen Holmes, who leads the SOH at 18.3 points per game, has often credited Orndoff for his play on defense that ultimately led to Holmes shooting 16-for-52 from the field (31 percent) in three games against the Panthers.
"I'm not the most talented basketball player but I'm athletic enough to be able to succeed and I get a lot of satisfaction out of playing defense," says Orndoff. "My main priority heading into each game is just to try to hold down the other team's best player as much as possible, and if I do succeed in holding them below their season average, that's definitely a plus for me."
"Once I get that defensive effort and mentality going," he adds, "it kinda transitions into lay-ins and easier buckets for myself on the offensive end. But it's not like I'm not going out there trying to outscore the guys I'm guarding. I just like to let it come to me."
That mindset also works well in South Medford's system, where defining roles and coming together as a unit has been a trademark as the program has won at least a share of 12 of the past 13 conference titles.
With fellow senior Mark Winans (10.2 points, 3.1 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 2.6 steals) and juniors Brayden Massey (9.1 points, 3.7 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals) and Cameron English (7.2 points, 4.2 rebounds) in the mix, the Panthers offer balance to complement Orndoff.
"We have no guy that's scoring 20 points per game or getting 10-plus rebounds for each game," says Orndoff, "it's just a very even, balanced team and I think that's why we've been successful. Guys aren't selfish, it's more about the team. I know I have no problem with other people getting credit for scoring so many points or getting so many rebounds per game. It's just a dynamic with us where everyone can contribute."
It's also a dynamic that Orndoff wants to further, whether through actions with his teammates or as an example to others that the best solutions can often be found by searching within.
"It's definitely been amazing to be part of the South Medford program and I just feel lucky to have this opportunity," he says. "Hopefully we can keep this going for a little while longer because it's been an awesome experience."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry