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Unsung Panther on the prowl

Spared the spotlight given to his teammates, South's Alan Johnson still finds time to shine

Mail Tribune

As newspaper and television reporters filter into the South Medford High boys basketball locker room after a game, they invariably seek out seniors Eric Fiegi or Ryan Heil, the Panthers' dynamic 1-2 scoring punch.

Fiegi, a 6-foot-9 post, and Heil, a 6-1 point guard, are to the Panthers what Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are to the Los Angeles Lakers.

They are the team's top scorers, averaging just over 37 points between them. They are the marquee players. The go-to guys.

Off to the side, in the shadow of the TV lights, sits Alan Johnson.

He's as obscure as a hood ornament on a Rolls Royce.

And yet without him, South Medford would not likely carry a 23-1 record and the No. — seed into the Class 4A state tournament that kicks off today at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. The Panthers meet Benson in an opening-round game at 8:45 p.m.

Johnson may not score a lot of points - 8.4 per game, to be exact - but he embodies a swarming Panthers defense that is among the best in the state.

South Medford is yielding just 42.5 points per game and has held 18 of its 24 opponents to 49 points or less.

And the player usually matched up against the opponent's best scorer is Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior forward who combines athleticism, tenacity and a keen sense of the game to routinely smother whoever he's guarding.

"Alan's one of the best defensive players I've had," says South Medford coach Dennis Murphy, now in his 14th season with the Panthers and his 30th coaching basketball. "We usually put him on the other team's best perimeter player, but he can match up against a post player and he's capable of guarding a point guard.

"He plays hard and he plays smart, but more than anything he's just very tough-minded."

Johnson has had a handful of big games offensively, but he knows his calling cards are defense and rebounding, where he is second on the team to Fiegi.

"I've never been my team's top scorer," Johnson says. "I contribute where I can, and on this team that means clamping down on a good player and seeing how many stops I can make.

"I take a lot of pride in my defense. It's a different challenge every time out."

Johnson's greatest challenges this season have been Ben Sullivan, a 6-9 senior post from Lake Oswego High who is headed to Cal-State Northridge on a scholarship, and 6-3 senior wing Brant Minor of Grants Pass, who is being recruited by several NAIA and Division II schools.

Minor managed just 10 points in two starts against Johnson this season while Sullivan scored 15.

South Medford won all three games.

"When you're going against players like that it's almost impossible to shut them down completely," Johnson says. "You try to deny them the ball as much as you can and then get in their face when they get it."

Johnson didn't get a lot of playing time last season and then missed a portion of the summer workouts while holding down a couple jobs. When he accompanied the Panthers to a team camp at the University of Oregon, he played poorly and raised some doubts about how much he would be able to contribute this season.

But Johnson played a lot in the fall and earned a starting spot shortly after practice began in November.

And while he doesn't score in eye-catching numbers, Johnson is the team's third-leading point producer and is shooting 52 percent from the field.

"Alan has really stepped up his game," Murphy says. "He gives us another force to go with Ryan (Heil) and Eric (Fiegi)."

And one of these nights he just might find himself in the spotlight.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail

Unsung Panther on the prowl