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The Plot Thickens

Craig Johnson, a 6-foot-4 junior post and part of a deep South Medford squad, will, with his teammates, try to secure a fourth straight championship in the Abby's Holiday Classic. / Roy Musitelli — — — The presence of South and North Medford in the boys basketball tournament is only part of the story. There are intriguing scenarios all over

Story lines for the Abby's Holiday Classic?

We've got your story lines.

How about, South Medford goes for its fourth straight championship and sixth in 13 years of the three-day, eight-team boys basketball tournament?

How about, North Medford continues to mold and shape its lineup in a final stretch before Southern Oregon Conference play begins?

Those scenarios shroud the local teams when play begins Thursday.

Throw in the out-of-towners, and there are enough themes to outfit an amusement park.

One coach, Aloha's Ken Yarnell, is well known in these parts for his prep exploits.

Another, Lebanon's Bart Stepp, has a well-known brother starring for one of college basketball's top programs.

One team, South Eugene, has played three others in the field. It yearns for redemption for two losses and welcomes the built-in measuring stick.

Some clubs have stutter-stepped early because their football teams made the playoffs and delayed basketball turnouts. None, though, has as much reason to use it as a crutch as Sheldon, the gridiron state champion.

A basketball state champ might not emerge from this field, but some entertaining play figures to surface.

It's a real competitive field, says South Medford coach Dennis Murphy.

Two teams are ranked in state polls. South Medford is No. 8 in the coaches' poll and No. 10 in the Oregonlive.com poll. Crescent Valley is No. 7 in the latter.

The Panthers (5-1) won last year's title game over a strong Redmond team, 62-48, in a season in which South Medford ascended to the state's top ranking during the regular season.

The team that was led by Eric Fiegi and Ryan Heil now has a distinctly different look, with one returning starter in 6-foot-3 senior Boomer Marshall, two returning lettermen and a bunch of newcomers.

There's no question Eric and Ryan were our mainstays and were going to score the bulk of our points, says Murphy. That's not going to happen this year, which I think can be a big plus for us. We have six, seven, eight kids who could be our leading scorer, depending on what's happening.

One phase that rarely changes for the Panthers is the emphasis on defense.

It comes in handy at this time of year.

The kids in our program really understand the expectations we have of how hard and how smart you have to play defense, says Murphy. We have struggled early on offense, but that's getting better. Part of that is the kids have to get comfortable in their roles on the offensive end. They're a little more defined than on the defensive end.

Over at North Medford, a couple of things are defined: Ryan Lucas and Brian Clifton have solidified their spots in the lineup, Lucas at a post and Clifton at a wing.

The 6-3 Lucas, a junior, has gotten off to a fast start, averaging 22 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Black Tornado (2-3). Clifton averages 13.2 points.

Beyond that, coach Tim Sam has tinkered.

Beau Hovland played the first four games at point guard, but was moved to shooting guard the last time out and responded with 12 points, six steals and six assists in a 65-62 win over Mountain View.

Brett Timmerman moved from shooting guard to a post, and other players have been tried in various spots.

Lucas is the lone returning starter at the same position, which explains some of the maneuvering, says Sam.

A lot of guys are really close, he says.

North Medford hopes to find some answers over the next three days and play the way Sam believes it's capable.

I'd say we're a little disappointed, to tell you the truth, he says of the sub-.500 start. We've been very good in stretches of games to the point we felt like we weren't necessarily the worst team on the floor in our three losses. We're really challenging ourselves to be more consistent in our play.

Yarnell, the Aloha coach, will get a chance to visit with old friends as he brings a team trying to recapture glory it knew in the mid-90s.

From his Medford days, he knows the value of tradition, and the confidence that comes with it.

He was an all-league football and basketball player for the Black Tornado before graduating in 1977 and trying to decide between law school and teaching and coaching.

Yarnell discussed the pros and cons at length with Medford coaches Fred Spiegelberg and Frank Roelandt.

They talked about what a big part tradition plays, he says. We won a lot of games we probably shouldn't have, and that's where that confidence comes in.

Lebanon coach Stepp was accustomed to winning during his prep days at South Eugene, where he played for his father, Dean, before going to Rice for a year and finishing his playing career at College of Idaho.

His brother, Blake, is the current star of the Gonzaga University team that has emerged as a national power in recent years.

It's exciting to watch him play and see him do good, says Bart Stepp, who graduated in 1989 and is 11 years older. I did a lot of baby-sitting because I was so much older than him. I remember when he was a little tyke, and he was rebounding the ball for me. He's really stepping into his own this year.

Bart Stepp, who works as an environmental engineer, took over the Warriors this year when no one else came forward. His previous coaching experience was with the Pendleton junior varsity several years ago.

South Eugene, meanwhile, has beaten North Medford and lost to South Medford by 11 and to Crescent Valley in overtime by two.

Against South Medford, says South Eugene coach Dave Hancock, the Axemen were only 8-for-20 from the paint. Against Crescent Valley, with which it opens on Thursday, they led until the last minute of regulation.

This will be a good barometer for us, says Hancock. We'll find out how much we've improved in the first month. Our kids would love to get through the tournament and have South get through the tournament and have another shot at them.

Sheldon has gone in fits and starts as its football players adjust to the hardwood. Seven of the 12 players on the roster ' including four starters ' turned out late.

the end of last week, they'd had almost as many games as practices.

We're not real sharp right now, says coach Lane Johnson. I think we'll be good eventually, but I'm not sure when that will be.

Craig Johnson, a 6-foot-4 junior post and part of a deep South Medford squad, will, with his teammates, try to secure a fourth straight championship in the Abby?s Holiday Classic. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune images