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Many reveled in South's run

Surely by now the word's out on how the South Medford boys basketball team earned its first-ever state championship this past Saturday at McArthur Court in Eugene.

And while the water cooler talk of clutch shots on offense, stifling efforts on defense and questionable decisions by the referees probably are at the forefront of conversations, that's not exactly what I took away from the tournament.

The thing that made the biggest impression on me regarding the Panthers' run to the Class 6A title involved the sense of community that embraced the program throughout the state tournament.

While the name on the front of their jersey said South Medford, the "South" part was more directional than exclusionary this past week in Eugene.

No Medford team had played in the championship game for the state's largest classification since 1961 prior to last year's runner-up finish by the Panthers to Lake Oswego.

The local boys hadn't won the large-class crown since Medford High's hoopsters edged Marshfield, 63-58, in 1960, and no team from the southern part of the state had staked claim to the boys title since Klamath Union in 1965.

And although South Medford coach Dennis Murphy said he and his staff only briefly touched on the drought here with the players, you didn't have to hang around the Panthers long before they showed their true colors.

Players like Kyle Singler and Michael Harthun could have been focused on putting their own indelible stamp on the Oregon landscape with a state title, yet they were talking about how important it was to bring a title back to Medford well before the season started last November.

And while both players were as good as advertised with unanimous selections to the 6A all-tournament team, each stayed true to their words following South Medford's 58-54 victory over the Lakers last Saturday.

Given the opportunity to toot their own horns a little — and some past players have worn out reporters' notebooks in that setting — Singler and Harthun were more quick to point out how important the championship was for hometown pride and not personal achievement.

Integrity like that shouldn't be overlooked, and it certainly isn't limited to just those two players. You didn't have to bump into too many fans at the state tournament before you heard some personal story on how one or all of the players gave back to the local community in some way during the season.

From visits to local schools by all the Panthers to one-on-one moments signing autographs or taking pictures with kids after games, the stories were abundant.

And, not surprisingly, so was the fan following for these young men.

The Panthers played to packed houses whenever they suited up in Medford, and that carried over to Eugene.

Just judging from the crowd noise, the local boys were the arena favorites during last year's championship tilt with Lake Oswego and that electricity was taken up another notch this year. When the South Medford band and cheerleaders involved the crowd or the Panthers came up with a big play, Mac Court was deafening.

"It was at a little higher pitch, that's for sure," Murphy said Tuesday. "It was great."

Saturday's sellout was the first for the boys basketball tournament's largest classification since the 2000 semifinals at Portland's Memorial Coliseum. That year 13,500 crammed into the arena to see Jefferson play Jesuit and Tualatin take on Redmond, and I can't imagine the gym rocking any more than the Panther faithful had Mac Court going Saturday night.

"So many people showed their appreciation of us and wanted to support us, and we appreciate that very much," said Murphy, whose squad was honored as the national team of the week by MaxPreps.com.

"It felt very good to be able to bring (the title) back to Southern Oregon and for the city of Medford," added the 19th-year South Medford coach. "I tell everybody all the time that Medford is so unique in its support of athletics. It doesn't make a difference whether it's football, basketball, softball, track ... whatever, Medford truly supports athletics."

And it wasn't just Medford making all that noise. Saturday's crowd included fans from Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix, Ashland and Klamath Falls.

Heck, even a handful of folks who traditionally root for cross-town rival North Medford were on their feet cheering for the Panthers.

"I think what happens in addition is that South Medford then becomes Medford and then the Rogue Valley and, finally, Southern Oregon," said Murphy, whose Panthers (27-3) climbed to No. 5 in the nation at MaxPreps.com, No. 10 on Sports Illustrated's Top 25 and No. 14 in USA Today's Super 25.

Regardless of why it came about, it was an impressive showing of camaraderie.

And although South Medford will raise its championship banner at the school during Thursday night's celebration, which begins at 7, you got the sense that the victory was for more than one group of coaches and players.

The smiles and pats on the back were as prevalent for those outside the Panther program these days as within during a post-championship gathering at the Hilton hotel in Eugene last Saturday.

Recent Panthers like Ryan Heil, Jeremy Frantz, Isaiah Adams, Andy Hagert and Eric Fischer whooped it up like it was their very own title, while parents of players who suited up for Murphy more than a dozen years ago were walking around on air.

There was no talk of it being bitter-sweet that South Medford didn't win a title during their day, just how sweet it was that it finally happened.

And there was no talk of whether so and so outside the Panther circle should truly be able to celebrate their victory, only that the entire community should bask in the moment.

It was all just a remarkable scene of inclusion, and one that Murphy continues to savor.

"It's starting to sink in a little bit," the coach said of his crowning achievement, "but as people keep saying to me as I walk around, that grin doesn't appear to be getting any smaller."

And neither is the Panther following.

South Medford players and fans celebrating the teams state championship. ROY MUSITELLI PHOTO/3-10-07