South Medford High is the only school at the Class 6A level to advance its boys and girls basketball teams to the state tournament in every year since 2011, but a fifth straight run to the final eight sets up to be challenging for the Panthers.
Fielding the necessary talent and developing the proper chemistry to foster such success are issues in any season, but where South Medford and company will really face a new obstacle will be in the conference alignment set for the 2014-18 time block.
Especially in girls basketball, the Panthers have feasted on a Southern Oregon Hybrid slate that has included three games apiece against Crater, Grants Pass, North Medford and Roseburg. South Medford's girls have gone a scintillating 48-0 in four years against their counterparts, with an average margin of victory of 34 points and no game decided by single digits.
South Medford's boys haven't had as easy of a path, yet still have compiled a 41-7 conference record over the last four seasons.
With new district configurations slated for the upcoming time block by the Oregon School Activities Association, such dominance simply isn't expected from any team. Joining South Medford, North Medford, Grants Pass and Roseburg will be Eugene-area foes Sheldon, South Eugene, Thurston and Willamette.
For those who don't follow those basketball programs, Sheldon's boys team played for the Class 6A state championship on Saturday and Willamette's girls team earned its second straight 5A state championship in a third straight trip to the finals.
The other programs, be it boys or girls, have also been extremely competitive over the last few years.
"One blessing is we don't have to play everybody three times," said South Medford boys basketball coach Dennis Murphy, alluding to the schedule adopted by the five-team SOH. "We've done that for eight years and that is miserable. That's the good part. The tough part is you're going to play the Thurstons, the Willamettes, the Sheldons, the South Eugenes home and home now ... but it's gonna make you better. I really look forward to that, but it's never easy to get here and it's just going to become a lot harder."
"As good as this program may have been or is, we're going to have to get better," added Murphy. "I like those kind of challenges and we've gotta go find some more kids that want to do it the Panther way and fight our ass off to get back (to the state tournament in Portland)."
SO MANY EMOTIONS for the South Medford girls basketball team bubbled to the surface following Saturday night's championship loss to Oregon City in which the Panthers squandered a 12-point lead in the second half to lose 57-48 at the Moda Center.
To come that far and not be able to reap the rewards was certainly frustrating, but not as baffling for South Medford head coach Tom Cole as a perceived all-tournament slight for junior guard Keyari Sleezer. The 5-foot-11 Sleezer scored a game-high 20 points in the championship game and was a main attacking force throughout the tourney for the Panthers.
"I believe she should've been on the first-team all-tournament team," Cole said of Sleezer. "She was spectacular tonight and that was pretty disappointing."
While a first-team honor may have been too much to ask for, Sleezer definitely deserved a spot on the second team after averaging 15 points in three games — ranking her fifth overall — to go with her third-place tie in blocked shots (three).
While it's challenging to presume why one player makes it over another for any all-conference or all-tournament honor, there's a strong likelihood that Sleezer simply didn't carry the name recognition as some of the others on the list, and going 3-for-13 in the semifinals against Beaverton didn't help. That said, Sleezer's 16 field goals (on 44 attempts) were second only to Westview's Jaime Nared at the tourney, and she was 5-for-14 from 3-point range. Sleezer, who shot 36 percent overall from the field, had only six turnovers despite considerable time with the ball in her hands to go with 11 rebounds.
Making it on the second-team were Clemson-bound Lexi Carter, whose team went 0-2 in the tourney after she averaged 17 points but eight turnovers per game, South Salem's Katie McWilliams and Jordan Woodvine, Oregon City's Toria Bradford and Beaverton's GiGi Stoll.
McWilliams averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and just under three assists in three games, while Woodvine averaged 12 points and around four rebounds for the fourth-place Saxons. Bradford averaged 12.3 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals for the first-place Pioneers. Stoll was 6-for-28 from the field (21 percent) in the tourney, including 2-for-15 in the semifinal loss to South Medford, and grabbed 19 rebounds for the fifth-place Beavers.
South Medford, however, did earn the sportsmanship trophy for the girls tournament and had two first-team selections in senior Ashley Bolston and sophomore Julissa Tago.
PANTHERS JUNIOR standout Andee Ritter, like a few of her teammates, was battling illness during the state tournament but what made South fans truly sick was that they couldn't see their team battle to the end with Ritter, lost for the season in January after suffering a torn ACL.
Ritter was averaging 14.2 points prior to her injury and has spearheaded the Panthers' defensive effort from the top of the press since her freshman campaign.
While it would've been nice to see how the versatile 6-footer could have altered the scope of how South Medford's season came to an end, Cole said he and his team never focused on her absence and certainly didn't use it as an excuse for finishing second to Oregon City.
"It'd be a different ballgame, sure, but we knew going into it we didn't have her," Cole said of the championship tilt.
"To get back here three consecutive years, it's disappointing to lose but there's 42 teams that would die to be in the spot that we were in," he added. "I appreciate the journey and I appreciate that it culminated with us getting back to a championship game. I'm disappointed that we lost it, but I'm proud of the kids' effort to get here."
Ritter said she's at least three months away from being able to run following her ACL surgery, and she likely won't return to the court until the fall.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry