North boys gain nod as SOH No. 1
It's been 13 years since North Medford laid claim to a conference championship in boys basketball, and the Southern Oregon Hybrid coaches apparently think such a drought is quite long enough.
With returning starters Chris Faust, Jordan Browne-Moore and Derek Mautz joined by two others who saw playing time during the Black Tornado's run to the Class 6A state semifinals last season, North Medford was a unanimous choice by the SOH coaches to earn its first conference title since the 1998-99 campaign.
"From an experience standpoint at the highest level, I surely think they are above everybody," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "With what they've done the last couple years, a lot of these kids have contributed to that and they've surely just gotten bigger, stronger and faster. There's no question we're all chasing those guys."
North Medford received all the first-place votes from the SOH coaches to total 16 points overall, with South Medford picked as the Tornado's biggest challenger for the title with 13 points, largely based on the Panthers' history of earning at least a share of nine of the past 10 championships.
"They're always up there and I can't imagine them falling off," said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, whose team is ranked fifth in the 6A coaches poll.
A host of returning players has Crater positioned third with nine points, just ahead of Roseburg (8) and Grants Pass (4) in what's expected to be a wide-open battle outside of the top spot — unless, of course, North struggles in its role as favorite. A season ago, the SOH advanced three of its five teams to the eight-team state tournament, so open competition shouldn't be an issue.
"I think that North Medford has to come in and be the favorite," said Roseburg head coach Craig Stinnett. "If they get complacent, though, then it will open up the door possibly for a South Medford or a Roseburg or a Crater to find some chemistry and challenge them. Playing each other three times is never easy and something that can come back and bite you in the butt sometimes. I think you won't know where you'll be in this conference until somewhere in the second round of games."
The first of the three rounds opens Tuesday when South Medford plays host to Roseburg and Crater is at Grants Pass. North Medford opens its SOH schedule on Friday at Roseburg.
The Black Tornado enters the conference season brimming with confidence after breezing to the Abby's Holiday Classic title. North has suffered only one nonconference setback in 10 contests heading into Tuesday's affair at Class 5A Eagle Point, outscoring teams on average 70-50.
"I just really like where we're at right now," said Plankenhorn. "We've got high expectations."
Mautz, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, has been North's leading scorer thus far, but balanced play has been the most critical in the early going. Browne-Moore and Faust have been active in the paint and the Black Tornado has received more aggressive play from senior wing Trey Garfas and junior point guard Oshea Bailey, who were key reserves late last season.
To take advantage of Mautz's 3-point prowess and Bailey's ability to break defenders down off the dribble, Plankenhorn moved Mautz from the primary ballhandler role he handled last year and both players have thrived in their new roles.
"If Derek gets a good look at it, he's usually going to make it and we knew we had to play both so we figured we would just free him up at (shooting guard) and put Oshea at the point so he can be there for two years," said the coach.
Mautz, Browne-Moore and Faust have been fixtures on the varsity team since they were sophomores and Plankenhorn said each has worked hard to take their game to the next level this season. Mautz was a second-team all-SOH selection, while Browne-Moore and Faust were especially impressive during the Tornado's late-season run a year ago with their tremendous athleticism and ability to thrive inside the paint despite neither standing taller than 6-3.
Browne-Moore's relentless pursuit of rebounds has been his calling card, while the Oregon Tech-bound Faust is a blur in transition and quick off the floor with slashing efforts to the basket.
Garfas provides a nice complement with his all-around play and ability to play down low or on the perimeter, and the Tornado gets a steady boost off the bench from the likes of guards Mark Winans, Dallas Whitaker and Julian Gray and posts Alec Parker, Brandon DeBerry and Garrett Knox.
"I really feel like this might be as deep of a team as we've had," said Plankenhorn. "We have to figure out ways to play defense and clean up the defensive glass. If we can do that, that frees up the break and we have some great guys who can get out in transition."
Transition is exactly where South Medford is this season with no returning starters and only senior point guard Matt Retzlaff boasting considerable varsity experience. Fellow seniors Jack Delaney and Jack Singler saw spot time at the top level a year ago, but all three will be asked to dial it up a notch if the Panthers are to add to their championship legacy.
Retzlaff's hard-nosed play has not gone unnoticed by his SOH peers, but he'll be asked to raise his scoring output this season for a South Medford team built more on balance than an all-star or two.
"We've just got to take our guys and find a way to win," said Murphy. "It doesn't make any difference who gets the points, we've just got to get enough to win."
Singler has provided South's primary scoring option from the perimeter, while Delaney is crafty inside and able to deliver baskets in a variety of ways.
The Panthers should receive a boost with the return of junior post Jesse Mondry, who is an athletic 6-5 and showed signs of promise before being sidelined by a team suspension the last two weeks. In his place, South used a rotation of sturdy 6-5 posts Joe Cooney and Sam Curtius to help in the paint.
Senior guard Jeff Sarsona will be looked at to provide more scoring balance, while senior wing Jake McCoy appears more comfortable in his transition from being a starter in Ashland and guards Daniel Jimenez and Adrian Garcia add a spark off the bench.
Crater went winless in SOH play during John Parent's first season at the helm, but the jump up should be considerable this time around with senior sharpshooter Justin Martin at the forefront.
Martin is one of four returning starters for the Comets, who have more returning players with varsity experience than anyone else in the league.
"I thought we did a fair job of competing for as young as we were last year," said Parent. "Hopefully that will turn into more wins and a chance to compete."
Junior forwards Cody Dismukes and RJ Morgan also return to the starting lineup with senior wing Jordan Douglas. All of the Crater starters are capable of reaching double digits in scoring, with Martin not shy about airing it out from long range and Dismukes providing a nice variety of moves that expands his game out to 20 feet.
The Comets, who haven't won a league title since the 1989-90 season, also boast solid contributions from the likes of Tommy Stewart, Evan Erskine, Derek Rodman and Tanner Jaasko.
Roseburg has no returning starters but should be led by varsity returners James "Boog" Leach, Jared Priestley and Hayden Lent and first-year starting 6-5 post Andrew Weber, who is the younger brother of last year's SOH player of the year Tim Weber. Junior Kai Seely runs the show at point guard for an Indians team that has a host of interchangeable parts that has allowed Stinnett to go 12-deep thus far.
At Grants Pass, Tony Scriven returns for his senior year after earning second-team all-SOH status last year. The 6-4 wing creates mismatches with his ability to create and elevate over defenders and will be a key cog in the scheme by first-year head coach Jeff Huston, who moves over from Hidden Valley.
The shortest starter for the Cavemen is 6-1 shooting guard Tyler Bennett — with senior post Dustin Randall the tallest at 6-6 — to help give GP an edge in the half-court game.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry