Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
South Medford girls basketball head coach Tom Cole was speaking about his own team, but his words may be even more salient to his squad's opponent today.
The top-ranked and top-seeded Panthers will play eighth-seeded South Salem in the eight-team Class 6A state quarterfinals at the Moda Center in Portland at 1:30 p.m.
The Saxons will be making their first state tournament appearance since 1997, while the Panthers are making their fourth straight appearance.
"You learn a little bit more every time," said Cole, who is in his seventh year as head coach. "For some on their first trip, there is kind of a feeling of awe given that it is at an NBA arena. No matter how many times you've been there, it's an amazing feeling to walk through NBA tunnels and clearance passes. That atmosphere I think, No. 1 makes kids feel special. You've got to relax and enjoy it."
The winner will face either No. 4 Clackamas or No. 5 Beaverton, depending on who prevails in that quarterfinal. The semifinal will take place Friday.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 St. Mary's Academy takes on No. 6 Westview and No. 2 Oregon City plays No. 7 Tigard.
The championship game is set for 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
As calm as they'll try to be, the Panthers and South Salem present some worrisome challenges for each other.
The Saxons (22-5) went 10-0 in the Central Valley Conference. They lost four of their first 10 games of the season before winning 16 of their last 17.
"We're looking forward to it," said South Salem's seventh-year head coach Nick McWilliams. "It's a great challenge for us. We haven't been in the state picture, so this has been what we've been aiming for. It'll be a great experience."
Six-foot-2 junior guard Katie McWilliams has averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game as South Salem's tallest player. She has scholarship offers from several Pacific-12 Conference schools and Gonzaga, coach McWilliams said.
Sophomore wing Jordan Woodvine (11.5 points) and freshman guard Evina Westbrook (10.0 points) are also key contributors for the Saxons, who have won 12 straight.
South Salem earned its only girls hoops title in 1976 at the AAA level. The program lost to Oregon City in the second round of the playoffs last year.
"We're just looking at it as a big challenge," coach McWilliams said. "We don't have a lot of pressure on us and South Medford has been there. We are just going to try to play the best we can. Obviously they have some weapons with their press and do such a good job moving the ball and are difficult to guard. We'll just have to defend well and handle their pressure."
The Saxons and Panthers shared one common opponent this year in West Albany. South Medford won, 55-41, on Dec. 17 and South Salem prevailed, 36-30, Dec. 21.
"They are a team that is much better than an eight seed," Cole said of South Salem. "The most important thing for us is to try to utilize the leadership on our team. We can't worry as much about who and what they do, but really try to stay focused on what we are capable of doing and take our chances with that formula."
Six-foot-2 guard/forward Ashley Bolston, South Medford's lone senior, has averaged 20.3 points, 10 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.1 blocks and two steals for the Panthers (24-3), who went 12-0 to win the Southern Oregon Hybrid. She has committed to Washington State.
Junior Keyari Sleezer (12.4 points) and sophomore Julissa Tago (11.9 points) are also key contributors for South Medford, which has made it to the state finals the last two years.
Sophomore Jasmin Falls (5.3 points) and freshman Lauren Orndoff (5.8 points) round out the Panthers' starting five.
In 2012, South Medford capped the best high school season in state history at the largest classification and secured the first-ever girls championship for the Rogue Valley with a 61-46 triumph over Westview. Two active players on this year's roster were on that team (Bolston and Sleezer).
Last winter, Central Catholic beat the Panthers, 57-36, in the title game. Five active players on this year's roster were on that squad (Bolston, Sleezer, Tago, Falls and Krystal Williams).
South Medford has scored 90 points three times this season and has averaged 70 points per game while holding opponents to 42. It went 3-3 against nationally ranked opponents this season in a daunting nonconference schedule.
The Panthers — who have not lost to an Oregon school this season — have played much of the second half of the season without junior starter and NCAA Division I prospect Andee Ritter, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. She was averaging 15.3 points, 3.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds, three steals and 2.2 blocks.
Despite that, the Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games by an average of 34 points.
How will they react if the game is close this afternoon?
"I don't think there is anyone on the team who doesn't recognize that if you don't play well now there is no second chance," Cole said. "You've got to go out and play your best game."
And you've got to enjoy the moment, Cole added.
"We've played our best when we've been able to sit back and not focus on outcomes, but recognize there are 36 teams sitting at home and only eight that are here," he said. "That's because we've done some things the right way and earned the opportunity."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt