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Sealing the deal

South Medford girls basketball standouts Andee Ritter and Keyari Sleezer proved there is more than one route to achieve your goals on Wednesday as each signed Division I national letters of intent.

Ritter, who stepped into a key role for the Panthers as a freshman, committed to play next season for the University of California at Irvine while Sleezer, who burst on the scene one year ago as a junior, committed to Pepperdine University.

“They’ve taken two different paths to where they got to today,” said South Medford girls basketball coach Tom Cole, “but they both have been huge for the success of South Medford.”

“I’m happy for them, they have earned this,” he added. “It has been a lot of years of hard work in the gym since these kids were little and a lot of miles logged playing basketball at a competitive level. These two have obviously earned this opportunity so it’s exciting.”

Joining the Panther duo in making a Division I commitment on Wednesday’s early signing period for basketball was Ashland senior Georgia Williams, who is headed to Columbia University in New York City. Williams, a 6-foot combo guard, led the Grizzlies with 16 points and three assists per game last year and plans on studying engineering at the Ivy League school.

“We’re very proud of what they’ve done here at South Medford High School and know that they’ll do great things when they move on,” said South Medford Athletic Director Dennis Murphy of Ritter and Sleezer. “Not only are they very good basketball players, they’re excellent students.”

For the 6-foot Ritter and 5-11 Sleezer, Wednesday’s ceremony at South Medford High offered a sigh of relief before they embark on what they hope will be another promising basketball season beginning Monday.

“Honestly it’s amazing to be able to go Division I, that’s really the insane thing,” said Sleezer, who averaged 12.7 points and was South Medford’s state tournament player of the game in two of its three contests during last year’s breakout season. “I always imagined I’d play college basketball but to go Division I is just awesome. It does make it really nice to sign right before the season so now we just get to play and know what we’re doing already.”

Both were part of the 2012 state championship team that set a large-classification record by going 30-0 — although Sleezer saw limited action — and each helped lay the foundation for two ensuing appearances in the Class 6A title game. The Panthers finished as runner-up to Central Catholic in 2013 and Oregon City in 2014.

“It’s always been our goals to do this,” Ritter said of the full-ride scholarships for each, “so it’s really exciting and we’re blessed for it.”

Ritter’s signing seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment she first took the floor for South Medford. As a freshman, she stepped into a veteran lineup and still found a way to excel, earning MVP honors in her first tournament in Lake Oswego and providing a spark with her unique athleticism and agility for someone her size.

“Andee came in as a freshman and was an impact player immediately,” said Cole. “She was getting tournament MVPs right away and I think, at that point, the state took notice of who she was.”

A skilled perimeter shooter and leading defensive influence on a balanced Panthers squad, Ritter averaged 11.6 points as a freshman and nine points as a sophomore before taking that up a notch with 14.2 points per game last year.

Ritter was on her way to an all-state campaign when a torn anterior cruciate ligament put an end to her season last January. She averaged nearly four assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks per game prior to her ACL surgery.

That injury cut into some school’s lasting interest in Ritter, who was cleared to return to full action last week, but UC Irvine never wavered in their desire to lure the versatile guard.

“Once I went and visited the school, it was really nice and then I met the coaches and they just seemed very nice and the balance of basketball and school there just felt like a good fit,” she said.

The Anteaters went 17-15 overall last year, recording the most wins since the 1994-95 campaign, and expect to lose only two players off this year’s squad.

“There’s still going to be pressure for me because I have to come back from the injury,” added Ritter, “but I think I’ve done a lot of rehab and I’ll be fine. I’m just excited to get back going again. I’ve got to get the in-shape cardio stuff going but I guess everybody’s like that. My strength level in my leg is good but, not playing for seven months, it’s going to take a little bit to get back into it. But I’ll be able to do it.”

Sleezer is proof that if you set your mind to something and work toward that goal, you can accomplish it. The little-used guard scored 33 points in her 22-game freshman season, built that to 4.3 points per game as a sophomore before added playing time and responsibilities led her to becoming one of South Medford’s top weapons for a 26-4 team one year ago.

“Keyari is one of the hardest working kids we’ve ever had,” said Cole. “At least for me, she is one of those examples of if you’re not satisfied with where you’re at at a young age, do something about it. She worked hard and did something about it and it really elevated her abilities and the recognition that’s come with it.”

Sleezer scored a game-high 20 points in last year’s state championship game and averaged 15 points during the tournament — ranking her fifth overall — thanks to a 36-percent success rate from 3-point range. Her 16 field goals (on 44 attempts) at the three-day tourney were second only to state player of the year Jaime Nared of Westview.

Sleezer said she’s excited about the prospects of coming into a Pepperdine program that’s set on turning a new leaf with an influx of new players. The Waves went 6-25 overall in the first year under coach Ryan Weisenberg and expect to lose only three players — two senior guards and one center — from this year’s lineup.

“They’re working on rebuilding their program right now so we have six freshmen coming in and we’re going to have the opportunity to compete for a starting position,” said Sleezer, who also plans to major in biology and get into Pepperdine’s pre-med program. “They definitely feel like I can have a big impact next year and I’m really excited for that.”

Ritter and Sleezer are the fourth and fifth players in the last three years to receive Division I women’s basketball scholarships in the last three years, joining Tess Picknell (Stanford), Yaremi Mejia (Portland State) and Ashley Bolston (Washington State). That tally only expects to increase next year with the recruitment of high-profile junior Julissa Tago, who was a second-team all-state selection last year after averaging 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

South Medford seniors Keyari Sleezer (left) and Andee Ritter sign their letters of intent as athletic director Dennis Murphy looks on at South Medford High on Wednesday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.