What a difference a year makes.

What a difference a year makes.

Keyari Sleezer knows that better than most.

In one year, the South Medford junior guard/forward went from a minor role player to a key starter for the top-ranked Panthers' girls basketball team.

Timing was a factor in her rise, but more important than that was her commitment to the game, head coach Tom Cole says. Never before had he seen someone improve so drastically over an offseason.

"Her accomplishments this season are a direct reflection of how hard she worked to get better," Cole says.

Leading up to this year, the 5-foot-11 Sleezer played at churches, fitness centers and schools on a regular basis. She went up against the old and young in full-court pickup games, hooped it up with men and women and practiced shot after shot.

Sleezer even practiced while on vacation in Costa Rica. One of the hoops at an elementary school there didn't have a backboard, which might help to explain all the buckets the 16-year-old has swished.

Sleezer, who was a first-team Southern Oregon Hybrid selection, has averaged 12.7 points, 3.72 rebounds, two steals, 1.84 assists and 1.28 blocks per game for South (22-3), which continues its quest for a third straight Class 6A state finals appearance by hosting David Douglas (5-16) in a first-round contest Tuesday evening.

When three starting spots opened up this winter with the departure of graduated seniors Kylie Towry, Yaremi Mejia and Luisa Tago, Sleezer was more than ready. She had already been tabbed a starter earlier in the summer.

In South's third game of the year, Sleezer erupted for a career-high 25 points against Summit. She once scored 22 against Roseburg and had 17 in a victory over Clovis West of Fresno, Calif.

"In really critical games she has demonstrated why she is a special player," Cole says.

Her most electric outing came against the Tennessee-bound Jaime Nared and Westview. With the spotlight seemingly on Nared and Ashley Bolston, South's Washington State-bound senior, Sleezer erupted for 22 points on 6-of-7 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.

"That Westview game was a big one," Sleezer recalls. "That was a big boost. ... I felt like every time I got it, I was ready to shoot."

Sleezer went to camps and played club basketball for South over the summer, when she became a starter for the first time.

"Immediately you could see her taking to that role," Cole says. "Not only fitting in but elevating her play."

She worked with Will Young — whose son Alex plays at UC Irvine — and her dad, Lathrop, individually.

"He is kind of the reason I started playing," Sleezer says of her father.

When Sleezer wasn't playing pickup, she was hoisting up hundreds of 3s and practicing ball handling.

Her momentum carried into a fall preview event in California. After that she received a scholarship offer from Portland State in October. She has since garnered interest from NCAA Division I programs in California, Colorado and Montana.

Sleezer grew about an inch from her sophomore to junior seasons and added some strength by pumping iron at the gym, she says.

Rewind to last season, when Sleezer chipped in when and where she could with 3.9 points on a deep roster that saw nationally acclaimed freshman Julissa Tago come off the bench. A year earlier, Sleezer swung between the JV and varsity teams as a freshman and mostly watched.

She has since developed into a fluid, high-caliber player while blending in with Bolston and Tago. Her contributions became even more valuable after junior starter Andee Ritter went down with a season-ending injury earlier this season.

Away from hoops, Sleezer is a perennial 4.0 GPA student who plays the violin for the school orchestra and helps coach her little brother Junior's fourth-grade hoops team. She played tennis for the first time last spring and intends to give track a try this year.

Further down the road, Sleezer hopes to go to medical school and become a doctor.

"She is so sweet," sophomore teammate Jasmin Falls says. "She is one of the nicest people I know. She's just an all-around good person."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt