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Surprising South finds successin Wegner era

First-year coach making mostof deep, talented Panthers

It's a tactic usually reserved for big-time basketball programs -- something you might expect an Oregon City or some established college program to try.

Even for elite teams, substituting five players at a time -- running in a fresh unit every few minutes -- is rare, to say the least.

Few coaches have the depth to pull it off or the nerve to sit their starters all at once. For a first-year coach to do it -- with four freshmen playing together -- requires real boldness.

Enter South Medford girls coach Andrea Wegner. The soft-spoken but firm 26-year-old English and history teacher has used the strategy to help turn a troubled program into an early contender for one of the Southern Oregon Conference's four state playoff berths.

Such success may be surprise her fellow coaches, who picked the Panthers to finish seventh in the nine-team conference, but it isn't much of a shock to Wegner.

I hoped for it, but I didn't expect it, she says. Our goal was to stay above .500 and get a shot at the playoffs.

The Panthers fell a game under .500 three times early on but have won four straight -- including impressive victories over Klamath Union and Roseburg that raised their SOC mark to 3-2.

South Medford (8-4 overall) faces a crucial test tonight at Eagle Point and another Saturday when it hosts eighth-ranked North Medford. The Black Tornado and No. 5 Crater are expected to battle for the SOC crown, while Eagle Point is one of several teams -- including the Panthers -- in the hunt for the other two playoff spots.

We have a couple of tough games, Wegner says. We need to get at least a split for the weekend.

Regardless of whether the Panthers get their split, their depth has made them a force in the SOC.

Nine to 10 people are playing regularly, says

Wegner. It's nice when we can pull all of our starters to rest at one time and not lose anything.

The starting five of Nicole Munoz, J.J. Miller, Ellena Flood, Lynn Wooton and Sadie Wallenberg may play the first four to six minutes of a quarter only to be replaced by Emily Perttu, Kelli Thomas, Heather Fossen, Karla Zenz and either Tiffany Mason or Angie Mills.

Wegner admits it took some time for the starters to get used to not playing 25-30 minutes a game, but says the team has bought into the idea.

There hasn't been any friction between the two groups, she says. I could mix it up and have different kids play and it would be fine. They are both quick and both have the ability to score.

That is evidenced by the fact that no player is averaging more than Miller's 9.2 points per game, but eight players have scored in double figures.

On any given night somebody is going to come up big and the rest of the girls are going to score six or eight points, Wegner says. I don't stick any kid on the floor that can't shoot the ball, so you have to guard everybody.

The decision to work her players in as groups more than as individuals came early in the season when Wegner noticed that the four freshmen -- Perttu, Thomas, Fossen and Zenz -- performed better as a unit.

The freshmen worked so well together because they've played together so much before this year, she says, referring not only to their time in middle school but to years spent in AAU programs. They work fine with the rest of the kids, but they play really well as a group. They are really fearless. They are not scared of anybody, that's not in their nature.

That fact began to emerge in the Dec. 19 game against Klamath Union, when the young group helped bring the Panthers from behind for a 52-44 victory.

But what may prove to be the most crucial lessons for the team came in the next two games, both at the Central Catholic tournament in Portland. On consecutive nights, the Panthers let a 15-point lead slip away en route to a 58-49 loss to West Linn and then overcame a 17-point deficit to knock off Central Catholic, 52-47.

We are playing hard now, Wegner says. We went out and blew a 15-point lead. We talked a lot that weekend about playing hard every minute you are on the floor, whether it's two minutes or 30 minutes. And the next night, we learned that if you work hard good things happen. I think they believe that.

The Panthers have also made good things happen with their shooting from both the foul line and beyond the 3-point arch. South Medford is shooting a solid 68.8 percent from the free-throw line and a stellar 36.6 percent from 3-point

land. Fossen has led the long-range attack, hitting on 14 of her 28 3-point attempts.

Having two units to rotate in and out has helped the Panthers play an aggressive full-court press and a motion-type offense that exploits their quickness.

We are pushing the ball a lot more this year and getting early offense points, says Wegner.

We are definitely using our speed to our advantage.

But beyond the tactical decisions Wegner has made, she also seems to be finding success in healing the wounds of last season's turmoil.

Last year, Jon Schnorenberg resigned as South's coach with four games remaining after angry parents stormed the court following a loss.

Even before Schnorenberg's abrupt departure, the program wasn't healthy, as evidenced by the fact that a number of talented girls transferred to other schools.

Wegner says it's been smooth sailing thus far.

The parents and I both have made a conscious effort to start the season with a clean slate, she says. It's been real nice.

It'll be even nicer if it ends with a playoff berth.

South Medford coach Andrea Wegner, firing a pass to freshman Karla Zenz in practice, has the Panthers off to an impressive start. - Photo by Jim Craven