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South gets benefit of doubt

Small conferences leave little wiggle room no matter the level of competition, but the weekly tension stands to be especially high in this first season of Southern Oregon Hybrid boys basketball.

No clear-cut favorite to walk away with the crown exists when conference play begins Tuesday, primarily because there are three teams generally viewed as championship-caliber contenders.

By virtue of gaining three of the first-place votes in a preseason coaches' poll, South Medford opens the season as the favorite to claim the No. 1 spot when all is said and done. The Panthers return three pivotal starters in seniors Josh Havird, Mike Brassel and Tevyn Mercer, and have more history than any of the others when it comes to rising to the challenge.

That said, Roseburg and North Medford each received a first-place vote and have every reason to believe the SOH title could be theirs in what should be a nail-biting season.

The Panthers finished with 14 overall points, followed closely by Roseburg (13) and North Medford (12). Grants Pass (7) and Crater (4) rounded out the voting.

"We want to believe that we surely have enough experience and talent to compete for the conference title," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "If we actually end up winning, time will tell."

Havird led the Panthers in scoring last season and is a legitimate threat whenever he has the ball, while Brassel runs the show as a hard-nosed point guard and Mercer came on strong a year ago with his ability to rebound and scoring versatility. The 6-foot-3 Havird was a first-team all-conference selection last season, with Brassel and Mercer earning honorable mention status.

"Those three guys returning are all good basketball players, and then you throw in all those seniors they have on board and they should be really tough," said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn.

Senior Kevin Thibeault has provided a nice boost in the paint for South Medford, fulfilling a need for rebounding depth and opportunistic scoring.

"He's a heckuva competitor and with that he's understanding his role and what's needed for us to be successful," said Murphy.

That goes for the rest of the Panther squad, which is deep in talent off the bench with the likes of Nick Shanklin-Rice, Austin Voss, Matt Retzlaff, Luke DeCoste and Cascade Christian transfer Tyler Marshall.

"One of the things we've talked about is team camaraderie," added Murphy. "You have nights where a guy can score a lot of points but in reality what you hope is we have enough firepower and the kids truly buy in that it doesn't make a difference who scores the points, the stat that's important is on the scoreboard."

Having such interchangeable parts has allowed the Panthers to ramp up the tempo and not lose a beat with a turnstile of substitutions.

"We don't have great size, and we know that, but we're trying to play a little faster and that's helping us and allowing us to play a lot of kids," said Murphy. "Hopefully that can be to our benefit in tiring people out."

The exact same strategy is being adhered to across town at North Medford, where Plankenhorn has always been comfortable in utilizing a lot of players but maybe not with the same results he's enjoying now. The Black Tornado opened the season with eight straight wins, sporting four different leading scorers and a revolving door of players.

Key to North's early success has been a relentless defensive approach that has led to numerous turnovers and a dizzying pace for all involved.

"That's how we have to play," said Plankenhorn. "We've been talking about it since we stopped playing last year. With the players we have, we knew we were going to have to create tempo and cause pressure to be successful and the kids are really buying into it."

Just as important, the Tornado players have bought in on sharing the basketball and all the responsibilities on the court. Jordan Browne-Moore is the team's main post presence at 6-3, but he's been getting plenty of help in rebounding by fellow junior Chris Faust and senior guard Jared Knox.

Junior Derek Mautz helps set the tone at point guard, with Michael Osmanski at a wing to complement the all-around efforts of Knox and Faust.

"Knox is a very good player and a two-year varsity starter," said Murphy, "and those juniors Browne-Moore, Faust and Mautz are all good players and we know that. I thought they might be a year away but given what they've done to this point, that may certainly not be the case."

As good as that group has been, the boost off the bench from seniors Jarrett Artale, Marcus Ellis, Michael McEwen and junior Trey Garfas has really allowed the Tornado to take it up a notch this season.

"We kinda share the duties all the way across," added Plankenhorn.

Roseburg is quite capable of matching South Medford's triple threat with one of its own in senior guards Brad Seehawer and Tim Weber and low-post threat Micah Audiss.

Seehawer, one of the conference's top scorers as a sophomore, missed the bulk of his junior season due to a violation of school policies but returns a little stronger and adamant to make the most of his final campaign. Audiss was a first-team all-conference pick a year ago and is a matchup nightmare thanks to his sheer athleticism in the low post, while Weber has grown to 6-5 and joins Seehawer as one of the top perimeter threats in the SOH.

"If those kids get hot, it'll be tough for anybody to play against them," Plankenhorn said of the Indians.

At Grants Pass, Bill Cowell returns to the sidelines after a four-year layoff and inherits a team spurred on by point guard Taylor Griggs and senior post Tony Scriven. In his previous stint at GP from 1996-2006, Cowell compiled a 180-83 record.

Unlike the Medford squads, the Cavemen expect to play a little more of a deliberate style to offer a change of pace to those up-tempo styles.

Making the move back to the state's largest classification for the first time in four years, Crater expects to undergo some growing pains this season with only one senior on the roster and limited varsity experience. The Comets haven't won a league title since the 1989-98 season in the old SOC.

Sophomore Cody Dismukes stands to be a breakout performer for Crater as a 6-3 forward, while junior guard Justin Martin and sophomore R.J. Morgan provide a solid complement for first-year head coach John Parent.

"It's obviously going to be a huge challenge with South Medford, North Medford, Roseburg and Grants Pass," said Parent, "but without challenges, why play?"

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Kris_Henry

South Medford senior wing Josh Havird (22) is one of the Panthers' three returning starters. - Denise Baratta