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South Medford's Chamberlin in a class of her own

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Since she made it onto the basketball court as a freshman on the varsity squad, Ula Chamberlin has essentially been a class of her own for South Medford High.

Regardless of what transpires this week as the Panthers head to the Class 6A state tournament at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center, the squad’s lone senior will finish her prolific four-year run as the program’s career scoring leader — and for that she is deeply humbled.

Chamberlin eclipsed the previous scoring record set by Kylie Towry, who graduated in 2013 with 1,825 points, in last Thursday’s playoff opener against Forest Grove and extended it two days later against Grant.

On her way to 1,850 points, the 5-foot-9 guard has also passed Julissa Tago (1,646), Ashley Bolston (1,407) and Lauren Orndoff (1,212).

“To be able to break the record, I feel so honored and feel like my hard work has truly paid off,” said the 18-year-old Chamberlin. “It feels amazing that I’m the one who gets to do it, especially since I grew up watching those girls and wanting to be like them. Those girls were amazing and to be able to rise above that is a good feeling for me, but I know that they are the ones who taught me how to be the best I can be. Without them I don’t think I’d be where I am today.”

Chamberlin’s path has been unlike any other in South Medford’s proud tradition that includes one state championship (2012), two runner-up showings (2013 and ‘14), a 92-game conference winning streak that netted seven straight league titles and a string of Division I signings that began with 2012 graduate Tess Picknell to Stanford.

Chamberlin began her career with elite teammates like Tago, Jasmin Falls, Orndoff and Hannah Washington to shoulder the load and let her just play the sport she loves.

After winning conference titles and competing in the state tournament her first two years, Chamberlin encountered a different experience last season. An influx of seven freshmen joined her and then-sophomore Bella Pedrojetti to form the varsity.

“I’ve always been the youngest on the team,” said Chamberlin, “and my junior year I had to become a leader and it took a lot of learning for me, truly, and Bella as well because she’s also a team captain. It’s been hard but it’s been a good learning experience. I think that I’ve grown as a person from it especially.”

South Medford’s conference winning streak came to an end last season, and the Panthers missed out on playing at the state tournament for the first time since 2010.

“We’ve never had a kid in that scenario, period, and that’s a hard thing to do,” said South Medford head coach Tom Cole of Chamberlin’s instant transition from follower to leader with an almost entirely freshman supporting cast. “There were a lot of learning curves with it. But I also think, in some ways, it forced her to have to change some of what she is as a player and really as a person. You’ve got to be able to communicate, and we had a lot of ups and downs, she’d be the first to admit it. That expectation and that ability to fulfill that expectation last year was really hard.”

As hard as it was, though, it only served to sweeten the moment last Saturday when eighth-seeded South Medford outlasted No. 9 Grant in a tug-of-war battle, 61-58, to clinch a return to the state tournament.

“It was probably one of the games I’ll remember my whole entire life,” said Chamberlin, who has signed to play at Division I Weber State. “There were no breaks at all and everyone was so into it and motivated. I think that’s what it made it so good, that everyone wanted it that game and nobody backed down. I was so proud of all the girls for stepping up to the opponent like that.”

Chamberlin was pretty special in her own right, scoring 10 of her team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter.

“To see it culminate the other night was special,” said Cole. “These kids really played hard and that was as good of a game that we’ve had here, maybe ever, with a quality opponent. That game took Ula having to be different, really getting other kids involved, in order for us to win.”

The path doesn’t get any easier for the Panthers (23-4), who open the state tournament at 1:30 p.m. Thursday with a quarterfinals date against two-time reigning champion Southridge (23-3).

The Skyhawks are on an 18-game winning streak and are the No. 1 seed, with 6-5 Stanford-bound junior Cameron Brink (20.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks) and junior point guard McKelle Meek (14.2 points, 4.2 assists, 2.6 steals) leading the way.

“This year is going to be a special year for us because everyone is looking down on us as the underdogs so we have nothing to lose,” said Chamberlin, whose mom Nicole enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career at Southern Oregon University. “We just need to go in there and play our hardest and do what we can do to be the best team we can be.”

It bears noting that South Medford ranks second in 6A scoring at 70.1 points per game, with Chamberlin (18.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals) and Pedrojetti (13.0 points, 3.9 rebounds) getting plenty of support from sophomores Toni Coleman (10.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 steals), Kaili Chamberlin (10.2 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Shakia Teague-Perry (8.0 points, 6.0 rebounds).

Maybe the biggest boost for the Panthers has come from the continued development off the bench of sophomore Emma Schmerbach and freshmen Sierra Logue and Tanesha Coley.

Still, it’s Ula Chamberlin who often sets the tone for her team. Her passing ability is unique to those with a high basketball IQ, and her ability to score the basketball has never been a question.

“Her versatility in scoring is incredible,” said Cole. “She can hit mid-range shots, she can hit long-distance shots and she can find a way to be crafty around the bucket despite the fact that she’s not very tall, not very long and not very athletic. You saw it the other night when she makes a spin move and she finds a way to use her body and get inside and use her left hand for a layup on a drive. That kind of ability is special.”

Realizing her potential in the South Medford program has been special for Chamberlin.

“This program means a lot to me,” she said. “I remember when I was a ballgirl coming and watching Juli (Tago) and Ashley (Bolston) just thinking I hope to be here one day and be able to go to a state tournament like them. Even being able to go to the state tournament as a ballgirl was so amazing to me back then. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to do that three of my four years here in high school, I feel super blessed.”

“I feel so grateful for Tom, who has always pushed us and helped us get here,” added Chamberlin, “because truly without him we wouldn’t be where we are in any of those years.”

Chamberlin, who is also a standout soccer player, also said she’s grateful that a basketball was put in her hand at an early age and she got to follow along with so many role models, from her mom to the Panther greats of her childhood.

“Truthfully, without basketball, I don’t know where I’d be and I don’t know who I’d be,” said Chamberlin, “so I think basketball has really shaped me into the person I am today.

“It’s been a wild ride but it’s been a good one, for sure, and I look at these younger girls as my younger sisters. I’m just so happy I’ve gotten to experience all of this.”

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

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South Medford senior Ula Chamberlin attempting to shoot over Grant High defender Amaya Aldridge at South Medford High on Saturday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)