SWC Boys Basketball Preview: North boys prep for battle
It took North Medford 18 years to climb back atop the conference standings and, after three straight championship seasons, the Black Tornado isn’t in any mood to let its recent success dwindle away, regardless of how tough the challenge may be.
“We feel like we’ve got another team to battle for that conference title,” said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, who is in his 14th season. “I think we have enough talent here to battle for that, for sure.”
Judging by the preseason voting by the Southwest Conference’s coaches, they tend to agree.
While South Eugene is the unquestioned favorite to earn its own repeat title — the Axe shared last year’s crown with North Medford and Sheldon — the Black Tornado and Irish aren’t too far out of the picture.
“South Eugene returns a nice chunk of players from last year,” said Plankenhorn. “They will be a handful.”
South Eugene garnered five first-place votes for a perfect total of 25 points, with North Medford gaining the other first-place vote to reach a second-place tie with Sheldon at 19 points.
South Medford (12), Grants Pass (9) and Roseburg (6) finished fourth-sixth in voting by the league’s coaches.
Helping set the tone for North Medford will be returning starter Jett Carpenter, a 6-foot-4 forward who was a second-team all-SWC pick last year. Carpenter was the team’s second-leading scorer at 11 points per game to go with 5.4 rebounds and nearly two assists per game.
“Obviously, Jett is a difficult matchup for teams that are going to want to try and chase him around,” said Plankenhorn, “because he can physically power you inside but he shoots it as good as anybody on our team from the perimeter.”
North Medford also benefits from the return of senior Victor Orozco-Bernal and juniors Landon Ellis and Nick Karrick, who saw considerable playing time last year and will be tasked with taking their games to the next level this time around.
Orozco-Bernal was an honorable mention all-SWC pick after doing a little bit of everything for the Tornado last year, while Ellis will take full control of the offense at point guard and the 6-4 Karrick supplies North with a 3-point shooting threat.
Ellis was “really turning the corner” this past summer when he suffered a broken ankle at a University of Oregon camp. Healthy again, Plankenhorn expects big things from the floor leader, who showed solid flashes of getting to the basket and finishing last season.
Sophomore Bryce Dyer (6-3) brings versatility and savvy beyond his years to the low post for North after his own solid summer campaign.
Senior Brennan Stults missed most of last season after breaking a collarbone in both football and basketball but will be a key figure off the bench this year. Senior Bryce Robustelli is expected to add depth once he returns from a broken left hand in mid-December.
Sophomores Trey Neff, Brandon Dominguez and Connor Goodrich will also be asked to step up for the Tornado to repeat as champion.
“I think they can all play and they’ll be fine,” said Plankenhorn, “it’s just a little bit hit and miss when the kids are younger.”
Fourth-year head coach James Wightman hasn’t been able to catch a break since taking over for Dennis Murphy, with his previous teams decimated by injuries and illnesses and that factor arising already this year.
When healthy, South Medford has a lineup capable of contending for a state playoff berth thanks to the return of senior starters Keegan Losinski, Sherman Hunter and Ben Harmon. Losinski, a 6-2 forward, was a second-team all-SWC player last year after averaging 11 points, and the 5-9 Hunter earned honorable mention at nearly 12 points per game.
In his first game of the season after dealing with knee soreness, Hunter tied a school record with eight 3-pointers in an overtime win over Beaverton.
Sophomore point guard Junior Sleezer, senior guard Peyton Shepard and juniors Jude Pannell and Sypher Townley also saw considerable playing time last year, giving the Panthers more varsity experience than Wightman has had — should they all be available.
“We return a lot of experience and things are looking a little better,” said Wightman. “We’ve just got to keep playing hard and trying to get better each day.”
Isaiah Dye (6-4 senior), Carson Cota (6-5 junior) and Evan Booth (6-3 junior) will play key roles in the paint, while 6-5 junior Jeremy Gaut, who grew four inches in the last year, is a solid shooter and should help stretch the defense.
Being more consistent and learning to close out games will be a point of emphasis after the Panthers won only two games a year ago.
No team returns more senior talent in the SWC than South Eugene, which boasts second-team all-league returners Aidan Clark (6-8 forward), Josh Paul (6-4 guard) and Sam Harris (5-10 guard) and honorable mention pick Bryce Boettcher (6-2 forward).
Paul averaged 14.6 points and Clark chimed in at nearly 12 points per game to help power the Axe last year under veteran head coach Dave Hancock. Harris and Clark are four-year varsity players, while Paul is in his third year.
Seniors Trey Nelson (6-3 forward) and Dylan Edwards (6-0 guard) add to the veteran appeal for South Eugene and join Boettcher as three-sport athletes, while 6-4 junior guard Jarrett Bryant supplies a jolt of athleticism to an already potent lineup.
The Axe will also be challenging itself with games against Washington’s Curtis and Camas high schools, as well as a tournament in Wyoming prior to the SWC slate.
Sheldon shared the SWC title last year and expects to contend for that top position again this year under first-year head coach Eric Orton, who takes over after eight years at Springfield and previous runs at Marist and North Eugene.
Orton was 113-87 with the Millers and inherits a Sheldon program that fared well under head coach Daniel Clark and returns all-SWC senior guard Griffin Line and 6-1 senior wing Dawson Prickel.
The Irish expect to be imposing in the paint thanks to 6-7 senior post Nick Yakovich and 6-5 junior Carter Neuman and an overall roster where only 5-11 returning senior guard Ben Gittins stands under 6 feet.
Sheldon also boasts several players off its SWC champion football team, and Orton said the team’s strength will be an ability to play 10 players on a given night without much dropoff.
Missing the playoffs last year means Grants Pass has no players on its roster with playoff experience, and head coach Tyler York and company hope to change that this year despite returning only one starter in 6-foot-2 senior post Chase Coyle.
To make that happen, York said his squad must rely on defensive toughness and overall depth.
Senior guard Anthony Maravilla (6-1) is the only other player to receive significant minutes last year, with guards Cade Anderson and Morgan Law seeing limited time at the varsity level.
The Cavemen will get a boost from 6-3 senior transfer Cade Ealy from Grant High, who has already shown good skills in the paint.
Seniors Justin Farris and Kienan Alderson lead what York believes will be a better shooting unit overall, with sophomore Trent Anderson coming off the bench to spell Law at point guard and provide some of the intangibles that helped make his graduated older brother Taylor an all-SWC performer.
With a new head coach and an almost entirely rebuilt roster, Roseburg will be a wild card come SWC time.
Head coach Jordan Humphreys has no seniors on his roster but active 6-3 posts in Zach Martin, Attreyu Pinard and Danil Olson to complement 5-8 junior twin guards Matthew and Jacob Parker.
Sophomore Carson Six (5-10) will also be tasked with helping the Indians keep trending upward after reaching the state playoffs last year for the first time since 2012.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry