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They're ready to roll

Just one year into Tom Cole's tenure as South Medford girls basketball coach, there exists a term rarely used around the once downtrodden program prior to his arrival: optimism.

"There is some excitement," Cole says. "Our goal last year was to really change the philosophy for kids to want to go out and compete. Now we want to win and build off the good things we did last year."

The Panthers (1-2) did plenty of good things last season, including ending a 26-game losing streak dating to the 2005-06 season.

South Medford went 11-13 overall and 4-11 in Southwest Conference play. Though the Panthers ended the season losing five straight, three of those losses came by just three points and were against playoff-bound opponents.

The Panthers were picked to finish third in the conference this season by the SWC coaches. League play begins tonight, with South Eugene at North Medford.

A third-place finish would put South Medford in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

"That's certainly our goal going into it," Cole says of the playoffs. "We want to be able to compete in conference and move on. That's not happened for South Medford girls basketball in a long time. Last season was an accomplishment, yet we are still not where we want to be."

To get there, the Panthers will rely on a talented senior backcourt and need immediate contributions from a pair of highly touted freshman posts.

First-team all-SWC senior guard Brittney Newcomb, a McDonald's All-American candidate, returns after averaging 14.3 points per game last season. She already boasts a 30-point performance this season.

Newcomb will be joined by honorable mention all-SWC guard Sheena Barkley, who averaged close to double digits a year ago.

"I think they'll be very good," Roseburg coach Jeff Thomas says of the Panthers. "Those two guards are as good a duo as we have in the league, and they will be a year older."

Barkley is the more outstanding ballhandler and passer while Newcomb is the natural shooter with seemingly unlimited range at times.

It's a perfect complement, Cole says.

"Our backcourt is actually one of the stronger in the conference," Cole says. "But we understand that it's got to be balanced. We have to figure out ways to score inside. We have to get leadership from those seniors. They are great individual players, but their biggest challenge is can they lead this team? That's huge for us."

The Panthers are looking for ways to incorporate athletic 6-foot-3 freshman post Lelani Morris and 6-5 freshman post Tess Picknell into the mix.

Morris was outstanding in the season opener — with 13 points, five rebounds and four blocks in limited minutes — but she's struggled with consistency since.

Picknell is an intimidating presence inside with a long reach.

"If those two can mature, that will be a foundation for our program for years to come," Cole says. "Much of our success will be determined by how soon they mature."

Both players experienced tremendous success below the high school level, but the transition to the varsity team has been, at times, rocky during the preseason.

"We are still trying to figure out what our system is," Cole says. "We're really struggling with that identity right now. Some of that will have to unfold as the season gets older and we transition into conference play."

It'll be a transition year across town for the North Medford program.

The Black Tornado (1-1) will be led by first-year coach Kevin Dixon, who takes over for Tim Karrick — the winningest girls basketball coach in school history.

Dixon, a 25-year coaching veteran, is not entirely new to the program, having spent the last three seasons as an assistant under Karrick.

"It's been an easy transition," Dixon says, "thanks to Tim (Karrick) and my assistants."

It may not be as easy to find replacements for the amount of production North lost from last season's SWC championship team.

The Black Tornado loses two four-year starters in Erica Schultz and Whitney Hodnett — Schultz was the conference player of the year last season — two-year starter Jana Parker, and defensive stalwart Kellie Satterfield.

"That was a talented group of young ladies," Dixon says. "We lose a lot, but we also have a good group of young players."

And they're very young. Freshmen make up 17 of the 28 players in the program and at least two should see considerable varsity minutes this season.

Just one starter returns in 5-9 junior point guard Karissa Dixon, the coach's daughter. She averaged five assists per game and was the second-leading scorer at around eight points per game last season.

"Her role is going to have to change," coach Dixon says. "She has to look to score a little bit more. Last year, her role was to take care of the ball and get it to the other people."

Karissa Dixon, an honorable mention all-SWC selection, will head an athletic group. McKenzie Smith, a 5-9 senior wing/post, is a potent scorer who was a key contributor off the bench last season.

First-year varsity player Alyssa Maurer also brings a scoring punch. The 5-9 sophomore post currently leads the Black Tornado at 14 points per game. She also grabbed nine rebounds in a loss to Franklin.

"She's kind of a smaller post," coach Dixon says of Maurer. "But she's very athletic and very aggressive."

Also joining the starting lineup is junior guard Ashlee Dekorte and junior post TeJay Schmidt. Senior wing Andrea Egge, back from nursing an injured shoulder, may also figure into the lineup.

While North will be undersized, coach Dixon plans to negate that by using more full-court, man-to-man pressure and zone defenses.

"We have some good speed, some athletes and some girls that anticipate well," Dixon says. "We are trying to use that."

Freshmen Kendra Straub, a 5-4 guard, and 5-9 wing/post Amber Black are the newcomers expected to see ample playing time. Both played on North Medford's SWC-champion girls soccer team in the fall.

The Black Tornado was picked to finish fifth in the conference this season.

Despite the inexperience, coach Dixon isn't ready to deem this a rebuilding year.

"I think making the playoffs is very realistic," he says. "It's going to be a dogfight in our league. I think it's down a little bit. I don't think the league is that strong where we can't compete.

"There are some young, wide-eyed players who are excited about it. They just want to go out and play."

South Eugene was the unanimous pick to win the conference title. The Axemen return four starters from a team that finished fourth in the state last season. Sheldon, despite losing three all-SWC performers and returning just one starter, was tabbed to finish second. Grants Pass tied South Medford for third-place honors.

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com

SOUTH EUGENE

COACH: Steve Eastburn (second year)

LAST YEAR: 21-9, 11-4 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 4-0

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Elyse Barnes 5-9 P Sr.

Lacy Clark 5-9 W Sr.

Sasha Teninty 5-8 W Jr.

Olivia Roberts 5-7 PG So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Ellen Cook 5-11 W So.

Jessica Shivers 6-3 P So.

Maddie Kiplinger 5-6 W Jr.

Jessie Brabender 5-6 PG So.

AT A GLANCE: Eastburn believes the team's biggest strength is its depth. That will be tested early as the Axemen will be without second-team all-SWC post Mackenzie Kerins. The 6-2 junior, who was second in points and rebounds per game for South Eugene last season, tore her ACL last summer and will be shelved until Feb. 1. "We want to make it through and be in a run for the playoffs when she does return," Eastburn says ... Filling her spot in the post will be by committee with Barnes, who is primarily a perimeter player but also has a strong inside game, and Shivers ... South Eugene returns a handful of experienced players off a team that finished fourth in the state last season, but the Axemen are still very young. Just two seniors are gone from last year. "We played a lot of freshmen," Eastburn says. "We are really deep." ... Barnes is the second-leading returning scorer behind Kerins at nine points per game ... Clark and Teninty are "two of the better defensive players in the league," Eastburn says. "They do a great job on the perimeter and of shutting other teams down." ... A key for a relatively small South Eugene team is keeping opponents off the boards. "We can lose the rebounding battle, but we can't get killed on the boards," Eastburn says.

SHELDON

COACH: Luke Roth (25th year)

LAST YEAR: 20-9, 11-4

CURRENT RECORD: 2-2

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Tami Brown 6-1 W/P Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Andrea Anderson 6-0 P Sr.

Mohona Doe 5-7 W Sr.

Carlee Hauser 5-9 W Jr.

Alie Hinton 5-2 PG Fr.

Cymone Martin 5-10 F Fr.

Kyrsha Witherspoon 5-4 G Fr.

Chloe Stiles 5-10 G So.

Natalie Boring 5-11 P Sr.

Kayli Fisher 5-7 W Jr.

AT A GLANCE: The Irish will be young with a trio of freshmen expected to play big minutes. Roth says it's one of his "most inexperienced teams," but he believes Sheldon should be in the hunt for a league title. The squad is athletic and has had success at the lower levels. Sheldon's freshman team was undefeated last season ... The preseason schedule includes Class 6A No. 1 Jesuit and Class 5A No. 2 Willamette ... Sheldon loses three all-Southwest Conference performers from last year. Graduates Theresa Brown and Katie Stiegleman were first-team selections as well as all-state recipients, and point guard Taylor Ward, an SWC honorable mention selection, has transferred to Oregon City for her senior season ... With Theresa Brown no longer roaming the middle, the Irish hope to be more of an up-tempo team ... Hinton started the season at point guard but will be out likely until January with a broken finger. Witherspoon has stepped up in her absence ... Tami Brown and Doe are three-year varsity letter winners. Tami Brown, who averaged around 7.5 points per game last season, was a second-team all-SWC player last year and also an all-conference selection in volleyball and softball. She and Anderson will be the primary offensive weapons.

GRANTS PASS

COACH: Robert Lingo (sixth year)

LAST YEAR: 15-11, 7-8 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 2-1

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Natasha Torgerson 6-1 F Sr.

Kayla Loffer 5-4 G Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Stephanie Pepperling 5-6 G Sr.

Heather Wonsyld 5-9 F Jr.

Mary Lathen 5-9 F Sr.

Maricela Aguilera 5-4 G So.

AT A GLANCE: The Cavers go from one of the SWC's biggest teams last season to one of the smallest this year after losing 6-2 center Gabby Randall and two guards around 5-10. That will translate to a more up-tempo style. "We can't set up our stuff in the half court and outrebound teams and get easy looks inside," Lingo says. "We have to push the ball up the floor and press after made baskets and misses." ... Torgerson will be a focal point in helping Grants Pass again reach the playoffs. The Cavers lost in the second round last season after a fourth-place finish in the SWC. Torgerson was a second-team all-SWC selection after averaging 9.5 points per game, and she is signed to play at Division I Sacramento State next season. "She's certainly going to have to carry a lot of the scoring for us on most nights," Lingo says. "Other kids have to make sure that when teams are doubling her that they are ready to score." ... Backing Torgerson offensively is Loffer, the only other returning starter. She averaged 9.6 points per game through three preseason games ... Pepperling is a disruptive force defensively with her ball pressure ... Lathen did not play last year due to a variety of injuries and setbacks.

south medford

COACH: Tom Cole (second year)

LAST YEAR: 13-12, 5-11

CURRENT RECORD: 1-2

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Brittney Newcomb 5-8 G Sr.

Sheena Barkley 5-6 G Sr.

Jamie Batten 6-0 F So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Lelani Morris 6-3 P Fr.

Shameeka Hubbard 5-10 F Jr.

Tess Picknell 6-5 P Fr.

Hailey Matlock 5-10 G/F Jr.

AT A GLANCE: Hubbard is an athletic forward who "gets after it," Cole says. "She does a lot of the intangible things and has a great work ethic. She'll help us" ... Matlock is in her first year with the varsity team and is a quality outside shooter ... After scoring 13 points in the season-opener, Morris has scored two points in the last two games ... Newcomb is averaging 22.3 points per game through three games this season. "She's a very hard worker," Cole says of Newcomb. "She's put in a lot of time out of the season. She's a tough kid." ... The schedule does South Medford no favor as the Panthers open with Sheldon and conference-favorite South Eugene to start SWC play ... Cole expressed a bit of pleasant surprise the Panthers were selected third in the league. "It's interesting we would be picked that high because we didn't qualify for the playoffs," Cole says. "I'm not sure what they're basing it on. We just want to be more competitive" ... The Panthers barely fielded seven players on the varsity roster last season but will have 11-12 players available most nights this year.

NOrth medford

COACH: Kevin Dixon (first year)

LAST YEAR: 22-7, 12-3

CURRENT RECORD: 1-1

RETURNING STARTER

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Karissa Dixon 5-9 PG Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

McKenzie Smith 5-9 W/P Sr.

Andrea Egge 5-8 W Sr.

Alyssa Maurer 5-9 P So.

TeJay Schmidt 5-10 P Jr.

Ashlee Dekorte 5-10 G Jr.

Kendra Straub 5-4 G Fr.

Amber Black 5-9 W/P Fr.

AT A GLANCE: Coach Dixon expects many ups and downs from his young team this season. True to form, the Black Tornado opened a 20-3 lead in its season-opening 60-39 victory over Del Norte (Calif.) only to miss what coach Dixon estimated were 13 uncontested shots in the first quarter of an 84-55 loss to Franklin in their next outing ... Schmidt has been a pleasant surprise for coach Dixon. He considered her a possible swing player from JV to varsity, but Schmidt has earned her way into the starting lineup ... Sophomore backup point guard Alex Kummer was lost for the season after tearing her ACL during a soccer practice this fall ... Karissa Dixon is averaging eight assists per game through two games. Coach Dixon says coaching his daughter is sometimes a tough task. "You try to leave everything on the floor as you go home and leave everything at home when you are on the floor," he says ... Coach Dixon says assistant Jared Casper serves as "the guy between" the coach and point guard. Casper is in his first year at North Medford, having served as an assistant boys basketball coach for a team in Provo, Utah, that won three consecutive state titles. "We were really lucky to get him," says coach Dixon, who also complimented assistant coach Ron Harvey for his work with the AAU program. "He (Casper) is a tremendous coach."

Roseburg

COACH: Jeff Thomas (third year)

LAST YEAR: 2-22, 0-15 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 0-4

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Ht. Pos. Yr.

Marah Baker 5-8 P Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Bethany Whitman 5-8 P Jr.

Kelsey Pardon 5-9 P Jr.

Courtney Hutchins 5-7 G Jr.

Brynna Bilton-Smith 5-9 P So.

Gretchen Kitzrow 5-4 G Jr.

LaRae Baker 5-6 G Jr.

AT A GLANCE: It appears to be another difficult season in a tough conference for Roseburg. The Indians did not win an SWC game last season and return just one starter in Baker. "We're in a process of making sure we are getting better," Thomas says. "We don't have a lot of height or experience. It's going to be a learning process. We are going to see good teams night in and night out." ... To offset that, Roseburg will attempt to slow the pace of the game and handle what Thomas expects will be constant pressure from opponents. "We need to keep the games down," Thomas says. "That's what we are going to ask of our girls." ... Baker averaged four points per game last season and will be expected to run the offense and score often for the Indians. "We need her to do a lot of things for us," Thomas says. "She's a strong girl and can shoot the ball well. We need to make sure we can get her in the right spots." ... Hutchins will also be looked to for her scoring and can run the offense in relief of Baker ... Bilton-Smith is a source of energy off the bench and should provide a presence on the boards ... Defensively, the Indians will attempt to keep opponents out of the middle to offset their lack of height.

South Medford guard Brittney Newcomb, left, is averaging 22.3 points per game and is part of a potent one-two guard attack with fellow senior Sheena Barkley. The Panthers were picked by the Southwest Conference coaches to finish in a third-place tie. - Denise Baratta