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Driving Force

It really isn’t politically correct to break down Julissa Tago’s style of play on the basketball court in such a manner, but she’s heard it all before.

If anything, she’s only living up to the style of play her father had hoped she would emulate when the 17-year-old standout first took to the basketball court many years ago.

From her aggressive drives to the basket, physicality in the paint and wide array of offensive moves, there’s one comparison the friendly South Medford High junior just cannot shake.

“A lot of people tell me I play like a guy,” says the 5-foot-9, 160-pound guard/forward. “Growing up I never really watched girls basketball, I watched the guys, so when people comment like that I laugh it off and say thank you. I take it as a compliment.”

However you want to describe it, Tago’s style of play is definitely unlike most of her peers — and that isn’t by accident.

“It kinda sounds weird but when I was younger my dad told me not to play like a girl,” she says. “I said, ‘OK, I am a girl though,’ but I think I knew what he meant. I worked on my shot for hours, and basketball was just one of the things I did all the time. My family and my coach Tom (Cole) and my best friend Courtney (Setzer), they’ve just pushed me every day to be the best I could be.”

Blessed with good size at an early age, a tenacious work ethic and ample athleticism, Tago definitely continues to make the most of her attributes. A key component to a Panthers team seeking its fourth straight appearance in the Class 6A state championship game, she is averaging 17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

Tago is coming off a 30-point performance Tuesday against North Medford in which she was 14-for-20 from the field for top-ranked South Medford (17-4, 10-0 Southwest Conference).

“She just got into such a strong rhythm early and the great part of how unselfish of a team we have is they looked to her while she had a rhythm,” said Panthers head coach Tom Cole. “They continued to feed that, and then that also opened things up for others.”

Standing out for South Medford definitely isn’t an easy thing to do, mostly because there are so many options to utilize. The Panthers have had six different leading scorers in their 21 games, and are averaging an amazing program-best 20 assists per contest.

“It’s different than a lot of the other teams we’ve had in that we’ve always had some really good scorers,” said Cole, “but this year the scoring has been so balanced that even those who aren’t leading us in scoring are putting up consistent numbers so they are always relevant.”

Keyari Sleezer is averaging 15.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals, while fellow senior Andee Ritter has sacrificed the most for her team in a comeback from an ACL injury with 10 points on limited shot attempts and nearly seven assists per game.

Junior post Jasmin Falls (12.3 points, 10 rebounds) and sophomore Lauren Orndoff (11.3 points) round out a starting unit that continues to gel. Sophomore Hannah Washington has also been a key figure with 5.7 points and a host of rebounds to help Falls in the post.

“This is probably the best team basketball-wise I’ve been a part of in all my three years being here at South,” says Tago, who has twice finished as a state runner-up. “It’s just awesome being on a team like this. Just the way everyone has invested in each other and plays with a team-first mentality makes it the best. Everyone really looks out for each other.”

When it comes to Tago, however, it definitely doesn’t take much to free her up for good looks at the basket.

“Juli’s a very diverse scorer,” says Cole. “She obviously has some range and can stretch the floor, but she’s strong enough that she can attack the bucket well and finish. We’ve got some kids who have always been good scorers but she’s one of those kids that’s a rarity in that she’s truly able to create her own shot in a variety of ways. I think that’s what helps distinguish her from others.”

Tago has also always had a flair for playing with a little flash, much like her favorite player and role model LeBron James. She has toned it down in recent years in pursuit of making the right, easy play … but the flair is still there from time to time.

“I like playing flashy, I like that a lot,” she admits. “I think it brings more fun to the game because we can’t, as girls, really dunk or fly through the air like the guys but we can still make it exciting. I did that more in my AAU years but it’s kinda fun once in a while to do it when we’re winning by a lot.”

As someone who has had an impact for the Panthers since stepping into the lineup as a freshman, Tago still considers her best basketball is ahead of her. She’s constantly working on all areas of her game, realizing there’s room to grow in every aspect. Her biggest growth since coming to South, she says, is in the mental part of the game and better understanding game situations.

“The mental part of the game is honestly the hardest,” says Tago, whose older sister Luisa was an unsung hero in the post when South earned its first state title in 2012. “Everyone can run and shoot and do things like that, but when it’s two minutes left in the fourth quarter, it’s all mental.”

Again, that’s another area where Tago, who holds a 3.5 grade-point average, continues to shine.

“The thing about Juli is you get what you see,” says Cole. “She’s a kid who has a positive attitude and she’s very humble for as talented as she is. She’s just a great kid with a great work ethic who only continues to improve.”

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

Junior guard/forward Julissa Tago has averaged 17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.9 steals for top-ranked South Medford, which is off to a 17-4 start. MT FILE PHOTO
Julissa Tago has twice finished as a state runner-up. MT FILE PHOTO