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South a tall favorite

Led by Singler, top-ranked Panthers are unanimous pick to earn fifth straight title

It's rare, for sure, but some coaches in the Southern Oregon Conference feel sad for South Medford's boys basketball team.

Not because the top-ranked Panthers aren't as good as billed, mind you, but because the rest of the conference really isn't in the kind of shape to challenge what might be Dennis Murphy's best team in his 18th season at South.

Beyond a Jan. 21 date at No. 3-ranked Jefferson, a handful of coaches expressed genuine sorrow that the Panthers may not be tested for the next two months as they strive for at least a share of a fifth straight SOC title.

They're an unbelievable high school team, at every position, Roseburg coach Mike Pardon says of South. They're going to be hard to beat. They have five starters who are college players.

In keeping with that theory, the Panthers (8-1) were unanimously selected by the conference's coaches to claim yet another title in an SOC campaign that begins at 7 tonight at North Medford (3-7).

— In tonight's other SOC boys basketball openers, Ashland (6-5) is at Crater (4-7), Grants Pass (5-6) at Eagle Point (5-6) and Roseburg (6-4) at Klamath Union (7-4).

South Medford was awarded the first-place vote by all seven of its peers to total 49 points, with Grants Pass getting the other first-place nod to finish just ahead of Roseburg, 41 points to 39.

A year after claiming its first playoff berth in 13 years, Ashland was tabbed to finish fourth with 28 points, followed by Klamath Union (22), Eagle Point (19), North Medford (15) and Crater (11).

Making the Panthers such a formidable foe is the fact that they return five of their top six players from last season, boast a starting lineup with four players 6-foot-7 or taller and have one of the nation's top junior recruits in Kyle Singler on their side.

For everybody else in the league this year they're a nightmare to match up with, says Grants Pass coach Bill Cowell. Everybody's going to try to keep the game close and, then, certainly you hope you can snake a game out in the end.

To a man, however, the SOC coaches admit that may be easier said than done.

At 6-8, Singler is South's tallest player and its most complete. The heavily recruited junior is averaging 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game despite being constantly targeted by opposing defenses.

Singler was the third-leading scorer in last week's Les Schwab Invitational in Hillsboro, helping the Panthers post a 3-1 record and fourth-place finish in the prestigious tourney. South's lone loss came in a 73-67 nail-biter against eventual champion Reserve Christian of Louisiana, and Singler had 32 points and 14 rebounds in that quarterfinal clash.

Kyle is a complete player, says Murphy. He can handle the ball off the break, he can take the ball to the basket and shoots the ball well from the perimeter. But the thing that sets him apart is how unselfish he is. If he has the ball and you're open, he will get it to you.

It doesn't get much easier for teams when Singler does give the ball up, however, with 6-7 seniors Kendall Gielow, Brent Johnson and Myles Daley patrolling the paint and 6-3 sophomore point guard Michael Harthun on the perimeter.

Gielow is averaging 13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals and leads the Panthers with six blocked shots. He also leads the starters by shooting 59 percent from the field, including an impressive 10-for-18 from 3-point range.

Harthun is adding 13.3 points and 5.4 assists per game, with Johnson averaging 11.1 points and 6.7 rebounds and Daley capable of hitting double-digit scoring or shutting down an opponent on a given night depending on South's need.

Kyle's obviously the best player in the league, says Eagle Point coach Keith Williams. He's one of those kids you really can't defend. But even if you somehow are able to take him away, they still have Gielow and Brent inside or Harthun can get the ball wherever they need it to be. They're far from being a one-man team.

It's that diverse firepower and willingness to share the ball that has South Medford excited about the prospects of a potential run at its first state title.

It obviously is one of the most talented teams I've had, and by far the tallest, says Murphy. To the kids' credit, I think we've really bought into sharing the basketball and the idea that it's not about an individual, it's about an entire team.

The Panthers averaged 16.5 assists per game to lead the Les Schwab Invitational, and scored 67 or more points in all four contests.

South Medford is something else, says North coach Tim Sam. For them to be up there in the Les Schwab with Lake Oswego and have folks see them and still come away with South ranked No. 1, that says something right there.

The Panthers enter the SOC slate averaging 75.2 points per game overall but are just as effective on defense, limiting teams to 34 percent shooting from the field and a stingy 48.8 points per game. South also averages 13 more rebounds per game than its foes.

They were the talk of the town in Red Bluff, says KU coach Bret Crawford, who had a front-row view as South claimed its first Red Bluff Holiday Classic title on Dec. 17. People were coming from everywhere to watch them play. I talked with a coach who brought his AAU team to the tournament so they could see what good, team basketball was like. They're just unbelievable.

It all may sound overwhelming for a bunch of high schoolers, but Murphy says his squad remains pretty grounded and focused on the task at hand despite such lofty praise.

The good side of it is you surely know what the expectation level is, he says of the hype surrounding his Panthers. It doesn't give you an excuse to not show up because the other team's always going to give you the best they've got because you've got such a big target on you.

Beyond South, the rest of the SOC picture is as clear as mud.

The rest of us is just a mess, says Cowell. This is my 10th year and I've never seen it this even. It should be an exciting year. There's going to be a lot more close games this year from top to bottom than there has been in the past.

And, according to Murphy, no chance that his ballyhooed Panthers will overlook anyone.

You can talk a lot about things and where you want to end up, says the coach, but if you stub your toe along the way, all that talk doesn't much matter.

South a tall favorite "khenry@mailtribune.com.

SOC BOYS BASKETBALL

2005-06 Predicted Finish

(first-place votes in parenthesis)

1. South Medford (7)49

2. Grants Pass (1)41

3. Roseburg39

4. Ashland28

5. Klamath Union22

6. Eagle Point19

7. North Medford 15

8. Crater11

2004-05 Final Standings

LEAGUEOVERALL

WLWL

x-South Medford122247

x-Grants Pass122198

x-Roseburg122224

x-Ashland86169

North Medford68913

Klamath Union410816

Crater113321

Eagle Point113618

x'playoff qualifier

PAST SOC CHAMPIONS 2004-05 ' South Medford (12-2), Grants Pass (12-2), Roseburg (12-2)

2003-04 ' South Medford (14-0)

2002-03 ' South Medford (13-1)

2001-02 ' South Medford (14-0)

2000-01 ' Roseburg (13-1)

1999-2000 ' Grants Pass (11-3) and Roseburg (11-3)

1998-99 ' North Medford (12-2)

1997-98 ' South Medford (16-0)

1996-97 ' South Medford (15-1)

1995-96 ' South Medford (15-1)

1994-95 ' Roseburg (15-1)

1993-94 ' South Medford (16-0)

1992-93 ' North Medford

1991-92 ' North Medford

1990-91 ' South Medford

1989-90 ' Crater

1988-89 ' North Medford

1987-88 ' Ashland

1986-87 ' South Medford

1985-86

' Ashland (16-0)

1984-85

' Ashland (15-1)

SOUTH MEDFORD

COACH: Dennis Murphy (18th year)

LAST YEAR: 24-7, 12-2 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 8-1.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

Kyle Singler6-8Jr.

Brent Johnson6-7Sr.

Kendall Gielow6-7Sr.

Michael Harthun6-3So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Myles Daley6-7Sr.

Tony DeSimone6-0Sr.

E.J. Singler6-4Fr.

Jon Grimes6-1Sr.

Jeff Stanek5-7Jr.

Dylan Anderson6-1Jr.

AT A GLANCE: In placing sixth at last year's state tournament, South Medford earned its first-ever back-to-back state trophies. A third straight trophy ' possibly the top one ' is the main goal for the Panthers this year, but not at the expense of stopping and smelling the roses along the way. One of the things we really have done is get away from saying our whole season is about that, says Murphy. It's not the end of the journey that counts, it's the journey to the end. ... Harthun shined at last year's state tourney by averaging 15.7 points and consistently providing strong play over the three days. He's more comfortable in Murphy's scheme and is at his free-wheeling best when he can force the tempo. ... Gielow and Johnson shoulder the overall burden of South's success. When they're on and involved, the Panthers are almost impossible to stop. ... Daley's versatility as a scorer one night and chief defender another is undervalued ... DeSimone, E.J. Singler, Jon Grimes, Dylan Anderson and North transfer Jeff Stanek stand to see action off the bench and their continued improvement will be a boost come playoff time.

GRANTS PASS

COACH: Bill Cowell (10th year).

LAST YEAR: 19-8, 12-2 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 5-6.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

Jason Nunnemaker6-6Sr.

Austin Wiersma6-0Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Craig Dolmage5-11Jr.

Billy Cowell5-11Sr.

Buddy Saxon6-4So.

Shane Mahr6-5Jr.

Taylor Thorp5-9Sr.

Kenny Lathen6-2Sr.

D.J. Ingledue5-11Sr.

Page Morgan6-2Jr.

AT A GLANCE: The return of Nunnemaker, Wiersma and Dolmage gives GP a nice nucleus, with Nunnemaker looking to build off a solid season in which he overcame a wrist injury to tally 13.3 points per game. Added bulk will help the 6-6 post in the paint, but there is question as to how it affected his acceleration off the dribble. Still, a double-double per game will be key to GP's hopes. I think he's probably one of the top post guys in the league along with (South's Brent) Johnson and (Roseburg's Eric) Thompson, coach Cowell says of Nunnemaker, who's averaging 15 points. He's getting so much attention from other teams that it's hard for him to get a lot of open touches, but he's doing a good job of not forcing things. ... Wiersma at the point (7.9 ppg) and Dolmage (11.2 ppg) on the wing will be needed to help shoulder the scoring burden. When they get shots they need to knock them down, says the coach. If they don't we're going to struggle a bit. ... Billy Cowell and Saxon also start, with Mahr in the mix depending on the opponent. Mahr has been GP's most consistent outside shooter in a versatile lineup.

ROSEBURG

COACH: Mike Pardon (13th year)

LAST YEAR: 22-4, 12-2 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 6-4.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

None

OTHER NOTABLES

Eric Thompson6-7Sr.

Brett Stephens5-10Sr.

Jordan Snook6-0Jr.

Jon Gregg6-3Sr.

Jesse McLean6-5Sr.

Spencer Heard6-2Sr.

Cort Messner5-10Sr.

Eric Strahl6-1Sr.

David Russell5-9Sr.

Kyle O'Brien6-0Sr.

Grayson Bly6-1Jr.

AT A GLANCE: No returning starters isn't as much of a concern for Roseburg as one might think. People don't remember that the year before last we lost eight seniors and went on to be (SOC co-champions), says Pardon. It depends on your talent level and who's coming in to play. ... Leading the charge is Thompson, who was the sixth man last year but has no problem shouldering the load. He's shown that he definitely can score the ball and he's an excellent rebounder, says Pardon. He's also getting better at getting other people involved. ... Snook takes over at point guard and has shown good vision and is a scoring threat. ... Gregg provides solid defense and the intangibles for the Indians, with McLean taking some pressure off Thompson inside. ... Stephens has the ability to stretch a defense with his perimeter shooting, with Messner, Strahl and Heard providing depth on the wing. We're not at the same level athletically, says Pardon, but I think we can be a real efficient basketball team before things are all said and done.

ASHLAND

COACH: Rick Cornelius (fourth year)

LAST YEAR: 16-9, 8-6 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 6-5.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

Josh Cornelius6-3Sr.

Colin Reinstedt6-3Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Sam Littleton5-10Sr.

Ryan Pittman6-3Sr.

Cameron Clement5-10So.

Colin Costantino6-3Jr.

Matthew Lipski6-8So.

Sache Hartzell6-2Sr.

Austin Raymond6-0So.

Rory Blanche6-2Jr.

Rodrigo Ramos5-9Jr.

Jesse Javna5-9So.

Ethan Moskowitz5-8So.

Lewis Sebrell5-10Fr.

Dillon Thigpen5-9So.

Dane Shewman5-9So.

AT A GLANCE: Ashland's resilient nature should go far in an SOC campaign that stands to have more up-and-downs than a yo-yo considering the unpredictability of teams behind South. We can't afford to have one kid have an off night, says the coach. They've got to bring it every night. ... Josh Cornelius will rise to any challenge and is a tremendous inside-outside threat. His quickness off the floor and willingness to battle inside are key to the Grizzlies' success. ... Pittman is another banger inside at center, with Reinstedt regarded as Ashland's top defender as well as a clutch scorer when times are tense. ... Littleton will handle some point guard responsibilities but has moved to off-guard to take advantage of his deft scoring touch. Depending on Littleton's role, Costantino fills in at off-guard or Clement runs the show at the point. ... Lipski offers the size the Grizz have longed for on the block, with a host of underclassmen effective off the bench.

KLAMATH UNION

COACH: Bret Crawford (eighth year)

LAST YEAR: 8-16, 4-10 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 7-4.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

Seth Hughes6-3Sr.

Alex Foster6-1Sr.

Daniel Landrum6-2Sr.

Jeremy Yazzie6-4Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Joe Hill6-4Sr.

Aaron Foster5-10So.

Matt Porter6-1Jr.

Nick Brandt6-4So.

Dominique Agnimel5-11Jr.

Wyatt Lundy5-10So.

Jake Waardenburg6-3So.

Evan Gallagher5-11So.

Mark Brooks5-11So.

AT A GLANCE: Were it not for South's Kyle Singler (19.9 ppg), KU would boast the top returning scorer in the SOC in Hughes (17.0 ppg). The senior guard is a proven scorer who can reach the 30-point mark but is also adept at dishing off to teammates. He's probably one of the most complete basketball players I've coached as far as his maturity and understanding that basketball is more than just scoring, says Crawford. ... Point guard Alex Foster was on his way to a solid campaign last year before injuring his hand. He has a knack of breaking down defenders off the dribble and has no qualms with going into the paint. ... Landrum's a streaky 3-point shooter who can fill it up when he's on and ease the pressure on Hughes, while double-double threat Yazzie (6-4, 230) mans the high post and is KU's best passer. ... Hill is a high riser and the Pels' top shot blocker for a deep Pelican bench.

EAGLE POINT

COACH: Keith Williams (third year)

LAST YEAR: 6-18, 1-13 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 5-6.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

Mychal Williams6-0Sr.

Derek Grieve6-4Sr.

Shasta Bateman6-1Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Zach Krzyzanski5-8Sr.

Ben Strickland6-1Sr.

Austin Owens6-2Jr.

Brandt Nevin6-0Jr.

Tony DeVaughn5-10Jr.

Alex Bancroft6-0Sr.

Jeff Campanelli5-10Jr.

Majeed Badazadigan6-3Sr.

Austin Rowley6-0Fr.

AT A GLANCE: If one team can be earmarked to play spoiler in the SOC, it just might by Eagle Point with standout seniors Grieve and Mychal Williams, who are the third- and fourth-leading scorers returning to the SOC at 15.9 and 14.9 ppg, respectively. The duo have started almost every game since they were sophomores and give EP a nice 1-2 punch. Last year if we didn't get production out of Mychal and Derek on a given night we were in trouble, says coach Williams. This year we're in a little better shape. ... Despite a slender build, Grieve has shown an ability to score inside and knife his way to rebounds. ... Mychal Williams can take it to the basket and pour in 3-pointers, and has added a nice mid-range jumper. ... A more confident Bateman is in his third year on varsity and provides a nice complement on offense. ... Krzyzanski has been effective at the point, while Owens provides a stout low-post attack and Nevin, Strickland and DeVaughn are solid off the bench.

NORTH MEDFORD

COACH: Tim Sam (fifth year)

LAST YEAR: 9-13, 6-8 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 3-7.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

None

OTHER NOTABLES

Abe Eubank6-2Sr.

Eric Stroh6-0Sr.

Steven Theel6-6Sr.

Jordan Ellis6-0Fr.

Michael Williams5-11So.

Jason Slowey6-3Jr.

Colby Neel6-3Jr.

Adam Stroh5-10Sr.

Josh Pecktol6-1Fr.

Mike Blaschka5-10So.

Spencer Stefanson6-1Jr.

AT A GLANCE: With no returning starters and a top returning scorer (Eubank) who averaged 2.7 points last year, North Medford is due for some growing pains this season. ... Providing the most excitement will be Ellis, who can rain down 3-pointers as easily as driving past defenders for lay-ups. He's going to be a special player for us, says Sam. He's very composed for someone his age. ... Eric Stroh can score on the perimeter or in the paint, with Slowey and Eubank providing plenty of muscle on the block. ... Theel has the potential to be a solid scorer with his soft touch around the basket, and will be counted on to help North control the boards. ... Not unlike the rest of the Tornado, Williams is a work in progress at point guard but has shown positive improvement, along with Neel, Adam Stroh, Pecktol, Stefanson and Blaschka. I'm excited about this team, Sam says. Certainly there's a little nervousness there, too, because we have lots of question marks, but almost every day I see us get better so that's a lot of fun to see as a coach.

CRATER

COACH: Troy McNichols (first year)

LAST YEAR: 3-21, 1-13 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 4-7.

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerHt.Yr.

James Oshel6-5Jr.

Ben Louie6-4Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Nick Brothers6-0So.

Bryce Peila5-11So.

Matt Hunt5-11Jr.

Derek Hogensen5-8Jr.

Deric Shults5-8Jr.

Chase Crook6-4Jr.

Cooper Schmelzer5-8Jr.

Warren Havird6-1Jr.

Tyson Hoffman6-4So.

Nick Tejcka5-11Jr.

Zach Uhles6-0Jr.

AT A GLANCE: With a roster comprised entirely of underclassmen, Crater may have the least experience in the SOC but isn't short on talent. Oshel is a standout returner who paves the way for the Comets from the low post. James is our glue, says McNichols. He is a force when he's on and he's into the game. When he's in the game we play really, really well. When he's not, we struggle. ... Louie moves from the — to the 4 spot on the floor and is a sneaky scorer around the basket. ... Peila is a savvy player at the point guard position, with the athletic Brothers at off-guard and Hunt providing quickness and a deft touch from 3-point range in the three-guard offense. ... Hogensen brings an energetic presence off the bench, while Havird's athleticism can be a factor and Hoffman and Crook give the Comets some size and physicality in the paint. Schmelzer and Shults serve as complements on the wing for a Crater team looking to make strides for McNichols following a three-win campaign last season.

South Medford junior wing Kyle Singler is among four Panthers averaging double-digit scoring heading into tonight?s conference opener at North Medford.