South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy is usually pretty open about his team and whether his Panthers have a chance to make some noise during the boys basketball season.

South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy is usually pretty open about his team and whether his Panthers have a chance to make some noise during the boys basketball season.

But having lost one of the best players this state has ever seen in Kyle Singler to Duke University and with only two starters returning, Murphy couldn't help but take a wait-and-see approach when it came to his 2007-08 club during an interview a few weeks ago.

Considering the results of this year's Southwest Conference preseason coaches' poll, Murphy may be the only one unsure of where his Panthers fit into the big picture.

For the second year in a row, South Medford is a unanimous pick to claim the conference crown — with Murphy's peers looking at who returns for the Panthers and not how many.

"I'm going to call his bluff," Grants Pass coach Scott Gottula says with a chuckle. "Who else in our league has a Division I kid like Michael Harthun? Who has a kid in E.J. Singler who is a heckuva basketball player and has played in the state championship for two years in a row. We don't have that, South Eugene doesn't have that, nobody does."

Harthun averaged 20 points and almost five assists last year and proved clutch in leading the Panthers to their first-ever state championship. The 6-foot-3 point guard scored a team-high 24 points in the 58-54 victory over Lake Oswego in the 6A final, marking the third straight year he was able to shine bright on the state's biggest stage.

"I think he's looking forward to his senior year," Murphy says of Harthun, who has signed to play at Washington State next year. "We surely have placed the bar high for him and we hope he'll jump over it. He's in a position to do something that no one else in the history of this program has had to do, and that's defend a state title."

The Panthers, who host No. 3 Sunset at 7 tonight, expect to get plenty of help for Harthun in the form of returning starter E.J. Singler. The 6-6 post averaged seven points, six rebounds and three assists in a secondary role last year, but most expect him to flourish this year as a junior. He's already upped his averages to 18.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists through five games.

"He is our low-post threat and I think people are going to find that he's gotten substantially better," says Murphy. "He's someone who can provide a lot of things for us."

Junior Mitch Singler and seniors Gonzalo Duran-Chaparro, Conner Egan and Griffin Boyd all saw some action at the varsity level last year, but the roles for each are vastly different this time around.

"A year ago we had two really good guys (in Kyle Singler and Harthun) and the others did a great job in their roles," says Murphy. "Can one of our other guys end up being the E.J. we had a year ago or a Van Dellenback-Ouellette? Those are the questions we have to find out."

Mitch Singler is expected to provide more scoring along with being the same defensive stopper he showed he could be at last year's state tournament, while Egan and Boyd are tasked with helping a relatively short Panther team control the backboards.

Duran-Chaparro's role may be the most different of all, with the 5-10 senior moving from Harthun's backup to his backcourt mate. The senior has already shown himself to be a sharp-shooter from the outside, and his ability to bring the ball up the court thanks to his point guard background has helped take pressure off Harthun.

The Panthers have already received solid efforts from newcomers Brandon Kezer and Zach Haveman, and the ability to rotate more players in only serves to make Murphy's up-tempo style that much more dangerous.

"They're still extremely talented and have really good role players who are going to step up at any time and hurt you," says Gottula of South Medford. "There's so many things they can bring to the table on a nightly basis that other teams are still trying to get to."

But even with all the Panthers can provide, it's nothing like last year — leaving many in the league to believe that the door could be opened for someone else to nab the crown.

North Medford returns all five starters and two of its top reserves and is the league favorite to give South its biggest challenge, although South Eugene and Sheldon aren't far behind. The Panthers received the highest point total possible (25), while the Black Tornado (20), Axemen (18) and Irish (13) each boast lineups that expect to challenge anyone on a given night.

Grants Pass (9) and Roseburg (5) rounded out the coaches' voting.

"There's not that one dominant team this year," says Sheldon coach Ron Lampe, whose team shared the SWC title with South last year and placed third in the state tourney. "South Medford's probably the team to beat, but I don't think they are as good as last year."

"I think from top to bottom our league has more parity this year," adds the second-year coach. "You're just not going to have any blowouts. I think there are going to be a lot of close games."

With that parity, and the fact that it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season, Murphy doesn't expect anyone to run the table in the SWC this year.

Interestingly enough, if the preseason voting is any indication, the Panthers will be tested right off the bat when North Medford travels across town for the Jan. 8 conference opener.

"I think North, no question, is better with all those kids back," says the 20th-year South coach.

Leading the charge for the Black Tornado will once again be junior guard Jordan Ellis, who is the second-leading scorer returning in the SWC after averaging 15.3 points last year.

Senior point guard Michael Williams, junior Josh Pecktol and seniors Tylor Waldron and Danny Berger join Ellis in giving North Medford its most athletic and seasoned starting fives in recent years.

"I think we're going to be much better because of that, but at the same time we still have some things to work on," says second-year North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn. "It all comes down to our ability to shoot from the perimeter. If we can't make our perimeter shots, we're going to be in trouble."

Plankenhorn says the exciting thing about his club is how much each player has developed over the offseason. The return of top reserves Tim Budavari-Jasper, who is a prime scoring threat as a sixth man, and Ryan McLemore should provide continuity for a team that is still getting a grasp on Plankenhorn's system.

"We definitely have high expectations and the ability to play to a high level," says Plankenhorn. "Now we've just got to get everybody to buy in and go do it for 32 minutes."

South Eugene returns standout forward John Hayward-Mayhew, who can be a game-changer with his 6-7 frame and undeniable athleticism, while Sheldon is tasked with replacing four starters but still boasts a bevy of talent roaming the halls.

Buddy Saxon provides a formidable force for Grants Pass in the low post and is complemented by the return of guards Dee Wiersma and Jaron West. Roseburg lost its top two scorers but returns point guard Jake Johnson and post Jake Cavens, and has benefitted by the arrival of South Umpqua transfer Zach Hancock.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

SWC Boys Basketball Glance
SOUTH MEDFORD
COACH: Dennis Murphy (20th year)
LAST YEAR: 27-3, 13-2 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 5-0
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
Michael Harthun 6-3 G Sr.
E.J. Singler 6-6 P Jr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Gonzalo Duran-Chaparro 5-10 W Sr.
Conner Egan 6-4 P Sr.
Mitch Singler 6-3 W Jr.
Griffin Boyd 6-1 P Sr.
Brandon Kezer 6-1 W Sr.
Cody Walport 6-1 P Sr.
Zach Haveman 5-9 G Sr.
Josh Aguirre 5-9 G Sr.
Shawn Phillips 6-4 P Sr.
Michael Work 6-3 W Sr.
AT A GLANCE: Being targeted as the league favorite is nothing new for South Medford, which has earned at least a share of 12 conference crowns since coming into existence in 1986. “There’s no reason not to show up and bring your ‘A’ game because everybody’s going to bring theirs because you’re expected to win it,” says Murphy. “Does it put more pressure on you, sure it does. But to be successful at the highest level, you have to learn to handle pressure.” ... Harthun and E.J. Singler lead the way for the Panthers, who aren’t nearly as tall as they’ve been the past few years. “What you hope is that if we’re not very big, we better do a pretty good job of establishing position to keep people off the boards,” says Murphy. ... Egan missed the bulk of last season due to complications from a head injury, but has returned with a facemask for protection and an unflinching desire to battle for every rebound. ... Boyd is adept at making the hustle plays that can turn momentum, but the Panthers are still in search of a consistent No. 3 scorer behind Harthun (22.8 ppg) and E.J. Singler (18.4).
NORTH MEDFORD
COACH: Scott Plankenhorn (second year)
LAST YEAR: 9-17, 5-10 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 3-2
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
Jordan Ellis 6-1 G Jr.
Michael Williams 6-1 G Sr.
Tylor Waldron 6-1 P Sr.
Josh Pecktol 6-3 W Jr.
Danny Berger 6-6 G Sr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Tim Budavari-Jasper 6-3 W Sr.
Ryan McLemore 5-10 G Sr.
Dustin Hutley 6-3 P Jr.
Matt Maurer 6-2 W So.
Cesar Ramirez 5-8 G Sr.
Almeir Barlow 5-11 G Sr.
Cameron Gentry 6-4 P So.
AT A GLANCE: No team can compare with North Medford’s volume of returners, but this promising group needs to deliver on a consistent basis before they’re viewed as legitimate SWC title contenders. “We’re definitely looking for one of those top two spots realistically,” says the coach. “We have the kids in the program that can do it, it’s just up to them to make it happen.” ... Ellis and Williams return for their third season as backcourt starters and both thrive on getting up and down the court in transition. ... Berger, who is the tallest Tornado after growing three inches in the offseason, is a bigger threat on the perimeter with his pure-shooting ability but a lack of overall team height may find him in the paint more as a senior. ... Also playing somewhat out of position is Pecktol, who must help out inside on defense. The junior is able to turn that role into a positive on offense, however, with his ability to beat defenders down court and off the dribble. ... The continued development of Hutley, Maurer and Gentry could be key to a deep playoff run.
SOUTH EUGENE
COACH: Dave Hancock (seventh year)
LAST YEAR: 11-15, 7-8 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 3-4
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
John Hayward-Mayhew 6-7 P Sr.
Travis Rooke-Ley 6-1 PG Sr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Danny Brown 6-4 G Sr.
Scott Masterson 6-2 W Sr.
Ethan Trachtenberg 6-5 P Sr.
Lucas Risinger 6-2 W Sr.
Alex Coleman 6-0 G Sr.
Sam Jacobs 5-11 G Sr.
Boseko Lokombo 6-3 W Jr.
Ellis McNulty 6-3 W Jr.
Spencer Coleman 6-4 W So.
Hayden Rooke-Ley 6-0 G So.
AT A GLANCE: Much was expected of South Eugene last year, but the Axemen struggled to find any sense of consistency. A year older at key spots, Hancock has hopes his team will be able to put it all together for another playoff run in 2008. Hayward-Mayhew is the straw that stirs the drink for South Eugene. The athletic post is coming off a season where he averaged 13.7 points in the SWC. “He has to have a big season for us,” says Hancock. “If he plays well, we’re going to be competitive. If he doesn’t have a real good season, we’ll be average.” ... Travis Rooke-Ley returns at point guard, while occasional starter Brown is back at shooting guard. Handling defensive pressure and getting South Eugene into its set plays will be a key for Rooke-Ley, who struggled at times with that last year, and consistent play on both ends of the court is the goal set out for Brown. “He can shoot the ball as well as anyone in this league or maybe in the state,” Hancock says of Brown. ... Trachtenberg and Lokombo provide definite athleticism and muscle to complement Hayward-Mayhew.
SHELDON
COACH: Ron Lampe (second year)
LAST YEAR: 22-7, 13-2 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 2-3
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
Trevor Clemo 6-3 W Sr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Tito Garcia 6-1 G Sr.
Curtis White 6-5 P So.
Todd Wellman 6-0 PG So.
Ben Higgins 5-9 G Jr.
Wyatt Davis 6-3 P Jr.
Billy Pinz 6-2 G Jr.
Andrew Agerter 5-10 G Sr.
Tyler Reynolds 6-3 W Jr.
Zach Todd 6-0 W Sr.
AT A GLANCE: Sheldon has naturally been slowed out of the gate after its football team won the Class 6A state title, but the Irish should be ready once the SWC season rolls around Jan. 8. “This is probably the first time in my coaching career I can honestly say we’re 10-deep with no real weakness in that group,” says Lampe, who’s in his second year after 12 seasons at Creswell. ... Clemo is the only returning starter off a team that finished third in the state last year. He averaged 8.3 points with a high of 20 in SWC play. ... White provides the foundation for the Irish thanks to his considerable size (6-5, 240) and athleticism. “He’s going to be a pretty special player,” says Lampe. ... Wellman has shown leadership beyond his years at point guard, with Garcia and Higgins rounding out the starting five. Pinz is a pure-shooting transfer from Marist and Todd returns to the court after a one-year absence. ... Last year’s team wasn’t able to pull off Lampe’s desired style of play, but that won’t be the case with this group. “We are definitely going to play the kind of basketball I want to play,” says the coach. “We are going to pressure people and make it a full-court game for the entire 32 minutes.”
GRANTS PASS
COACH: Scott Gottula (second year)
LAST YEAR: 6-18, 3-12 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 2-4
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
Buddy Saxon 6-6 P Sr.
Dee Wiersma 6-1 G Sr.
Jaron West 5-10 PG Sr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Forrest Carpenter 6-4 F Sr.
Zach Morgan 6-2 G Sr.
Bryce Davidson 6-3 F Jr.
Ronnie Fields 6-2 F So.
David Parker 5-10 G Sr.
Justin Haggard 6-1 F Sr.
Johnny Nickelson 5-10 G Sr.
AT A GLANCE: Grants Pass took its lumps last year playing in a new league with mostly underclassmen, but that experience should pay off this year with several battle-tested players. Saxon is the driving force for the Cavemen, with Gottula challenging him to put up a double-double in points and rebounds every night. “I think the supporting cast is going to allow Buddy more opportunities this year,” says the coach. “I think the kids around him are more confident in what they can do, and that’s going to make him better.” ... Saxon led GP in scoring last year with 14.1 points per game in the SWC, including a season-high of 28. ... West, Wiersma and Morgan make up an athletic backcourt capable of taking the pressure off Saxon. West is capable of breaking you down off the dribble, while Wiersma and Morgan are both dangerous from the perimeter. ... Key to GP’s success this year will be the interior play of Carpenter, Davidson and Fields to complement Saxon. Carpenter is a solid rebounder and defensive presence, while Davidson and Fields tend to shine more on offense. “If we can get two of those three to step up on a given night, we’re going to be all right,” says Gottula.
ROSEBURG
COACH: Craig Stinnett (second year)
LAST YEAR: 8-16, 4-11 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 3-2
RETURNING STARTERS
Player Ht. Pos. Yr.
Jake Johnson 5-10 PG Sr.
OTHER NOTABLES
Jake Cavens 6-5 P Sr.
Brady Whitman 6-4 P Sr.
Zach Hancock 6-3 G Sr.
Derek Priestley 6-0 G So.
Brandon Johnson 6-5 P So.
Josh Malone 5-11 G So.
A.J. LaBranche 6-1 G Sr.
Brady Sherriff 6-1 G So.
Spencer Huff 6-2 G Sr.
Manny Mendoza 5-9 PG Jr.
Brad Stricklin 6-1 G Jr.
AT A GLANCE: Jake Johnson, Jake Cavens and Brady Whitman are the only returning Roseburg players who saw significant minutes last year, but Stinnett has high hopes for this year’s cast. “We’re coming into this year with some knowledge of what I expect out of them, so we’ve been able to focus more on preparing to play games and not just trying to get to know each other,” says Stinnett. ... Cavens grew about three inches in the offseason and provides an interesting dynamic with perimeter skills in a low-post body. The Indians expect to utilize the senior’s length and athleticism by running the offense through him. ... At 215 pounds, Whitman is a strong force on the interior, while Jake Johnson has the ability to hit the open shot and distribute the ball well. ... Hancock, a transfer from South Umpqua, provides a huge lift from the perimeter as the Indians’ top catch-and-shoot threat. ... Priestley broke his collarbone five games into his freshman season, but his ability to slash to the basket and finish will be a key to keeping teams honest on defense.