James Wightman never really planned on this day coming but now that it has, he finds himself humbled by the opportunity.
A former feisty point guard for the South Medford boys basketball team, Wightman ascended to the top spot in the program this week when he was chosen to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Dennis Murphy, who retired after this past season to cap a stellar 28-year run.
“It’s a privilege, it’s an honor,” Wightman, 37, said of being named only the third boys basketball coach in South’s history. “I’ve been there for 14 years as a coach for Murph and played there for four, so that’s 18 of my 37 years I’ve been a Panther. It’s going to be fun and exciting and challenging for sure.”
Wightman emerged as a strong candidate to replace Murphy given his ties to the program at the youth and high school level. He’s spent the past five years as the junior varsity head coach and feels comfortable in the program, although he realizes expectations will need to be tempered when it comes to comparisons to Murphy.
His predecessor capped his coaching career ranked third on Oregon’s all-time boys basketball coaching wins list at 697-210, with the highest winning percentage (76.8 percent).
In seven years at St. Mary’s High, his teams went 123-42 and won a state title in 1979.
In 28 years at South Medford, he was 574-168 with a state title in 2007 and runner-up showings in 2006 and 2016.
“Murph’s like a second father figure to me and of course I’m still going to call him and get his advice on things, but there’s only one Murph,” said Wightman, who was a 1998 South Medford High graduate and played collegiately at Southern Oregon University.
“I’m certainly not going to try to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “What we’ve done is pretty good. I’m going to try and keep it going the same somehow, where we will compete hard on the defensive end and hopefully we can hit shots and work together on offense.”
Murphy didn’t take part in the selection process but was pleased to learn that Wightman would be taking over.
“I think it’s a good hire,” said Murphy. “I’m really happy for James and for South Medford and for the basketball program. I think he’ll do a great job.”
“He’s in some ways one of those guys like myself I always cheer for,” added Murphy, “because I hope they get an opportunity just like I did where you’re an assistant coach and then you get your opportunity and I surely hope he’s going to make the most of it. I think he will. He’s a guy that’s going to work hard and he knows about the successes of the program and for his sake and the sake of the program, I think he’s going to do all he can to keep it going.”
South Medford Athletic Director Tim Rupp, hired last month to replace Murphy in that role, said Wightman was very impressive during a lengthy interview process and was a “big hire” for the school.
“It will be exciting to see how the kids respond and how James responds to keeping the program as one of the top-notch programs in the state,” said Rupp. “He’s got the knowledge and excitement, definitely, to do that, and he’s got the dedication as well. He’s in the gym all the time. We’re excited for him and looking forward to seeing how it all develops over the next few years.”
To further create stability in the program, Wightman retained many of the assistant coaches already on staff. Jamie Hammericksen will return to the sidelines as the freshman coach, while Boomer Marshall will take over the JV program and Wightman’s varsity assistants will include Mike Vanderhoff and Jared Pulver.
“I think the transition is going to be good,” said Wightman. “I know the seniors-to-be and their parents and everything and the younger players coming up. If people think we’re going to try to be ranked No. 1 or 2 in the state right away, though, that’s going to be not really a reality. We’re going to have to set smaller goals, for sure, but we’ll continue to build from there.”
The Panthers advanced to the 2016 Class 6A state championship game against West Linn this past season with a senior-dominated lineup that finished 27-3. Only incoming senior Riley Martin (6-foot wing) and juniors Kaleb Franklin (5-8 point guard) and Chase Cota (6-3 post) are eligible to return.
“We’re going to have to do some different things offensively because we don’t really have a 6-8 guy like Hunter (Bradford) to dump the ball into down low,” Wightman said in looking forward to the 2016-17 campaign. “We’re going to have to rely on (3-pointers) and drive and kick and go from there since we’re going to be small. We’ll have to mix things up on defense and spread the floor and press and do all that stuff, but I think we’re going to be quick and athletic and be able to do some things that give us a chance.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry