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Panther girls take big step with first victory

After a successful weekend in Bend, Tom Cole wasn't too surprised to receive phone calls from well-wishers excited about what his South Medford girls basketball team was able to accomplish.

Coming off a winless 2006-07 season, the Panthers broke through in a big way with a season-opening, 63-45 win against Mountain View Friday.

That victory allowed South Medford to snap a 26-game losing streak that dated back to the 2005-06 season, and only a fourth-quarter surge by Bend the next night kept Cole's Panthers from opening the season 2-0.

All in all, it was a good start for a South Medford program that has posted four straight losing seasons and hasn't qualified for the state playoffs since the 2001-02 season.

"It definitely feels good to kind of take the monkey off our back so to speak," Cole says of halting the program's losing streak. "I can't tell you the number of calls we've gotten from parents and relatives of girls associated with the program who were absolutely surprised about us getting a win."

And while Cole is happy to give his girls their moment in the sun, it's that sense of wonderment that the Panthers could actually prevail that has the first-year coach determined to push his team even harder.

"I'll use this to go back to the kids so they can see where people are at. They're surprised we got a win and it shouldn't be that way," says Cole, adding he knows everyone has meant well. "This is the kind of mentality we want to change. We want it to become expected that we win."

As much as anyone, however, Cole knows that must come with time. There are less than 20 girls combined in the Panther varsity and junior varsity programs, and Friday's win was the first for some at the high school level.

"This is going to be a journey," he says, "but I really think with this group of kids we have the ability and capacity to do some good things."

Junior guard Brittney Newcomb paced the Panthers with 29 points in the win over Mountain View, while backcourt mate Sheena Barkley added 11 points and nine assists. Another junior, forward Nagely Medina, was the only other South player to score in double figures with her 13 points complemented by nine rebounds.

A knee injury sustained by Medina on Friday hampered the Panthers on Saturday against Bend, with South Medford only able to utilize six players for the bulk of the game. The 5-foot-7 Medina was only able to play a couple minutes in the first and fourth quarters, and Cole says the Panthers basically wore down in the fourth quarter. Several turnovers allowed the Lava Bears to outscore South 15-9 in the fourth quarter to gain a 63-61 triumph.

"We really were in it the entire game and we just lost in the very last second," says Cole, who also serves as executive director at Kids Unlimited. "But I think it's part of the journey these girls are going to have to understand. They're still learning the dynamics of how to win. We ended up playing not to lose instead of playing to win, but that comes with time."

South Medford boasts only three seniors in forwards Kinzie Towry, Emily Salisbury and Alanna Stevens, who stands to give the Panthers a big lift when she's able to return to the court from injury in January.

Cole says that group of upperclassmen hasn't had the benefit of a structured program such as the one he's brought to the school and hasn't been able to develop their full potential. Lack of depth and overall height has also undermined efforts in recent years, with girls often forced to play out of position.

"I think this team has a lot more talent than what their record has revealed over the last couple years," he says. "I just don't think where they've finished is the kind of image that really represents what these kids are about. These young ladies have been beaten and demoralized in a lot of ways, but I think those who have stayed are very resilient. They're hungry and want to prove to themselves and the community that they can play basketball and be competitive."

Cole says that hunger is on display every day in practice. He acknowledges a great deal of the structure that he's brought to the program doesn't always equate to warm smiles and happy-go-lucky gym time.

"Our practices are not fun," he admits. "Winning is fun, but getting to the point of winning is not fun. If you don't put the work in, what you get is either not deserved or not real. Getting to the place we need to be is going to require a lot of work."

It's an approach Cole says cost him a handful of potential players, and he bears no grudge against those who decided not to turn out.

"For some kids that just didn't seem to fit, and I think it's OK," he says. "We ended up with what we have, and even though we're lean in numbers, I'm proud of the kids we have."

And help is most certainly on the way.

South's JV program earned only one win last year and has already won three games this season. Cole has also logged many hours to help develop the Panthers' AAU program and expects it to pay big dividends in years to come. South Medford's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade AAU teams have won every tournament championship they've vied for this year, and the seventh- and eighth-graders have yet to lose since the season started in October. Cole estimates the three teams have a combined 85-1 record.

"There's a lot of good things that are happening," he says. "It's good to see things are going to be changing and there's hope on the horizon, and I think there's a lot of hope for this season, too. We're going to get better and I think we're going to surprise some folks this year."

He means that in a good way, of course.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com