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Nearly every coach in the Southern Sky Conference picked Ashland to defend its boys basketball championship.

Each, however, followed up his first-place vote for the Grizzlies with the word "but." As in, but watch out for Crater, or Mazama will do some damage, or Klamath Union may make a mess of things.

Mazama front man Randy Rose summed it up best.

"I gotta go with Ashland as the defending champs," says the 10th-year coach, "but I'd say Crater has the most talented, athletic team in the league. They're dangerous.

"KU is easily the fastest team in the league, and I'm not going to sell our team short. The league is as balanced as it could be right now."

The Grizzlies received four of the five first-place votes — Mazama was awarded the other — and took in 16 points in what should be a feisty league race in which as many as four of the five teams could contend for the crown.

Crater was picked second with 12 points, Mazama was chosen third with 11 and Klamath Union finished fourth in the poll with seven points. Eagle Point rounded out the picks with four points in a poll that restricted coaches from voting for their own teams.

Two very capable squads will be left out in the cold when the postseason rolls around. The SSC has only two berths to the Class 5A state playoffs.

Ashland wears the bull's-eye and has the horses to back it up.

Boosted by the strong play of 6-foot-9, 345-plus pound senior post Matt Lipski, the Grizzlies have won three of their last four games to rebound from a 1-5 start.

"We're beginning to work together," says first-year coach Larry Kellems. "Each game we're getting better with that."

The Grizzlies also feature athletic wing/post Garrett Tygerson (6-5 junior) and 5-10 senior point guard Cameron Clement. Both can fill up the scoring column.

"Tygerson was starting to step into that No. 2 scorer role," says Kellems, "but Cameron has also taken on a little bit of that role. He's come up big late in games when we needed that extra push."

Crater promises to be in the mix behind 6-1 senior guard Nick Brothers, a first-team all-SSC competitor, and the improved play of 6-5 senior forward Drew Runberg, who struggled at times last season in his first year after transferring to Crater.

Runberg will get plenty of help on the low block from 7-foot senior Jared Murphy, who has "made a lot of strides from last year," according to coach Troy McNichols.

Junior point guard Josh Lokeno and senior guard Bryce Peila also return to the starting lineup for the Comets, while Travis Robbins will see major minutes amongst the starting five or off the bench.

"Robbins has a nose for the ball," says McNichols. "He always seems to get a finger on the ball and is always making something happen. We think he's going to be a great player."

Mazama and Klamath Union both took turns knocking off Henley, the top-ranked Class 4A team, recently.

The Vikings did it behind 6-8 senior post Colton Nelson, who is averaging 21 points per game in nonconference play.

"As a sophomore, he was a mediocre JV player," says Rose of Nelson. "Then last year as a junior he is the highest vote getter on the second team (all-SSC). He's improved so much this year."

Nelson should get plenty of help in the scoring column from fellow starters Drew Millsap (6-4 junior) and Jordan Rose (6-1 junior).

Klamath Union brings back high-scoring guards Mark Brooks (6-1 senior) and Aaron Foster (6-0 senior) to bolster a roster that doesn't list a player over 6-4.

Senior guards Evan Gallagher and Wyatt Lundy will also help shore up the Pelicans' up-tempo attack.

Eagle Point is still in a rebuilding phase.

Last season, the Eagles finished 0-12 in the SSC and they only return Austin Rowley for this year's league campaign.

Senior guards David Brasel and Jonathan Taylor will help Rowley, a 6-foot post, shoulder much of the offensive load.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com

Ashland High senior post Matt Lipski (24) is one of the reasons the Grizzlies are the pick of the Southern Sky coaches to defend their title. Here he’s shown blocking a shot in a game earlier this season against Phoenix. - Thom Larkin