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Plenty in reserve

For all he’s dealt with since coming to South Medford High in his sophomore year, Hunter Bradford has every right to be a little bitter.

Foot injuries, back injuries, knee injuries, concussions … the road to being a contributing Panther has been chock full of obstacles in his three years at the school.

And yet through it all, Bradford has handled it all with a smile and an opportunistic spirit that one day his time would come.

For everyone involved in the South Medford boys basketball program, the hope is that time is now as the Panthers open the Class 6A state tournament against Sheldon at the Chiles Center on the University of Portland campus. Tip-off for the quarterfinals matchup is 8:15 p.m. Thursday.

“There’s no question that you feel bad for the kid because he really is quite an athlete,” says South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. “More than once in his time at South Medford we thought things were good and everything was heading in the right direction and then something else usually has happened to set him back again.”

“To his credit,” adds Murphy, “he’s worked his way through all that and tried to not get too depressed and has stayed positive and supported the team the best he could when he’s not been able to play. Right now he’s feeling good, and we’re all happy about that.”

Bradford earned first-team all-Southwest Conference honors this season after averaging 9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.3 blocks in 20 games for the third-ranked Panthers (25-2).

“It’s been a great senior year,” says the 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward. “Besides me getting hurt and missing a few games, we’ve exceeded expectations and it’s been one of the most fun years I’ve ever had playing. We’ve been winning and having fun as a group and this has been a fun group of guys to play with.”

Sharing responsibilities has led to a tremendous team balance that Bradford hopes continues in the state tournament as South Medford aims to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since winning it all in 2007.

Conor Carroll leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game to go with 4.4 rebounds, while fellow senior Josh Washington has been a force in the paint at 9.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game and senior Eskari Carter averages 9.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.3 rebounds.

“We’re just so tight and play so good together and we’re not afraid to share the ball and see other people succeed on the team,” notes Bradford.

That unselfish nature may best be embodied in Bradford himself.

As a returning all-conference player and someone who helped South Medford to a sixth-place tournament showing in 2014, Bradford was sure to be a fixture in the Panthers’ starting lineup his senior year. Early injuries, however, necessitated a different lineup and even when Bradford has been able to go, Murphy couldn’t bring himself to make a change.

“In some ways he’s the ultimate team player,” says Murphy. “To his credit he’s done a great job of accepting his role and some people might say one of your best players is playing off the bench, and that’s probably a true statement, but we came up with a pretty good formula that sure seemed to work and the old saying is if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

“Again, though, he’s been extremely supportive of his teammates and if we say go in in the first minute or the fourth minute, he’s ready to go.”

None of it has been an issue for Bradford, who is also an all-SWC outfielder in the baseball program.

“Coming off the bench all year, it’s a weird feeling because I wasn’t expecting that going into my senior year but it’s worked out great for us,” says the 18-year-old standout. “It hasn’t really bothered me because we’ve been playing great and even though I don’t start, I’m in there for a good amount of the game. Either way we’re going to win or lose as a team and play as a team so that other stuff doesn’t matter.”

What Bradford says he’s most proud of is how much his teammates have stepped up during times when he’s been absent and allowed South Medford to enter the state playoffs with the No. 2 seed overall.

“With me being down earlier, it was great to watch all the guys step up and I’m just proud of this team,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot and it’s all just kind of coming together now.”

Bradford hopes to use his 2014 state tournament experience to his advantage this week in Portland, but he realizes nothing is more important than the Panthers’ ability to roll up their sleeves and get ready for a lot of hard work at the Chiles Center.

“It’s going to take another level of physicality from our team and being mentally strong for us to have success,” says Bradford, who averaged six points and four rebounds and ranked third with six blocked shots in his last state tourney experience. “It’s going to be a reality shock just how physical it’s going to be but I think if we play defense the way we can play and execute on offense, I think we can go a long way. It’s going to be fun, I know that.”

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

South Medford senior Hunter Bradford is a returning all-conference player who helped the Panthers to a sixth-place state tournament showing in 2014. - PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON