SWC GIRLS PREVIEW: South, Sheldon get top billing
To get an inkling of the potential the South Medford girls basketball team has, one need only look at the Panthers’ travel itinerary last summer.
They played roughly 40 games in June and July, sometimes two or three in a day, said coach Tom Cole, and made trips to college showcase tournaments in places such as Louisville, Baltimore and Las Vegas.
The last time South Medford undertook such an ambitious summer swing was 2011, said Cole. Earlier that year, the Panthers won their first conference title since 1994, and the following season, they completed one of the best seasons in Oregon history, going 30-0 en route to the 2012 state championship.
No one is crowning the Panthers just yet, mind you. First, they must negotiate the Southwest Conference season, in which, based on a recent coaches poll, it’ll be South Medford and Sheldon, then everyone else.
The front-runners each received three first-place votes and 23 points. The Panthers are aiming for their first league title in three years; the Irish of Eugene have won or shared the past two.
South Eugene (16 points), Grants Pass (13), North Medford (10) and Roseburg (five) round out the poll.
Sheldon “reloaded,” said Cole, adding a 6-foot-3 post from Cottage Grove, Reilly Kelty, who has signed to play at Portland State, to a mix that already included the returning conference co-player of the year, Alyssa Mirabile.
South Medford, 4-2 and ranked third in Class 6A, has a wealth of experience, even though the roster includes only one senior, and will be battled tested from a nonconference schedule that will have included some elite national programs.
Cole, in his 13th season, has a roster of 12 players and is not afraid to use it.
“It’s really the deepest team we’ve had, maybe ever,” he said. “We’ve had some teams that have had maybe a stronger nucleus of players that had already been projected to play at a higher level, but this is a pretty deep team. There’s a lot of balance in the roster.”
Bella Pedrojetti, a 5-foot-9 guard, is the lone senior and a returning first-team all-SWC selection. In November, she signed an NCAA Division I scholarship when she hooked up with Eastern Washington.
A handful of juniors, including returning first-team all-leaguers Kaili Chamberlin, a forward, and guard Toni Coleman, are in their third seasons as primary contributors. They were thrown to the wolves as freshmen, when South Medford’s string of seven straight league titles and its remarkable 92-game conference winning streak came to an end.
That senior-less team had seven freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. It was the only Panther squad in the past nine years that didn’t advance to the state finals in Portland, but It still went 17-10 overall and was but a game out of first in the SWC.
“They have a lot of experience under their belt that a typical junior class would not,” said Cole.
Last year at state, South Medford was beaten by eventual runner-up Southridge in the quarterfinals and fell to West Linn in overtime in the consolation round.
Only one player off that Panthers team was lost to graduation. Ula Chamberlin left as the school’s career scoring leader and now starts for Weber State.
“They got a chance to feel what that’s like,” Cole said of the state tournament. “That’s not something you can really replicate. You can’t replicate the pressure, you can’t replicate the environment, the venue and obviously, when you’re playing in March, the stakes are a state championship. They got some good experience.”
More came in the summer.
At Louisville, for instance, South Medford was in The Battle of the Boro, one of the largest college exposure tournaments in the country — 100 courts for 10,000 players a day, said Cole, and 340 college coaches scouting. The Panthers played six games in three days, going 4-2.
That volume of play is one reason for the team’s depth, a characteristic “that makes this team different than almost any I’ve coached in the past,” said Cole.
It shows on defense, in particular, as well as in an up-tempo offense. The Panthers send defenders at opponents in waves. They held McNary to seven points in the season’s second game. On Wednesday, they blanked Crater, a top-10 5A team, in the first quarter and accumulated 20 steals in a 75-30 win.
South Medford is as able as ever to apply its brand: 80-plus feet of pressure defense.
“It’s been part of a successful formula over the years,” said Cole. “Teams that have advanced further at state have had the depth to do that. I think this group of kids has some potential as well.”
Shakia Teague-Perry gives the Panthers a fourth returning starter, and Sierra Logue, Emma Schmerbach, Laini Dahlin and Tanesha Coley have plenty of experience.
Transfer point guard Bella Stone, an all-league player from Del Norte, California, adds to the depth.
One player not suiting up for South Medford this season is freshman guard Donovyn Hunter, one of the nation’s top recruits in her class. Hunter suffered a torn ACL while playing for a Seattle club team in the spring, underwent surgery on the knee in June and is recovering, said Cole.
It’s something old, something new for the Black Tornado (0-4 entering a Thursday night game) this season: Four starters return to the lineup, but the team will be directed by first-year coach Terrence Readus.
Readus moved on to the Rogue Valley in midsummer from Payson High School in central Arizona. He replaced Aaron Rayburn, who coached one season.
Readus grew up in Northern California and had a brother in Medford before the sibling recently moved to Texas.
Readus was a varsity assistant for five years at Payson, and prior to that was head coach of the junior varsity and freshman teams.
“The minute I got here, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” said Readus. “I love the area. The people are great. Most of all, I love the girls I coach. I’m very lucky to be coaching this group of young ladies that I have.”
North Medford was fifth in the SWC last season with a 2-8 record. It was 9-14 overall.
The four starters back are led by point guard Jane Ersepke, a 5-8 senior who has signed to play for NCAA Division II Azusa Pacific University.
The other returning starters are 5-7 senior post/wing Abby Christiansen, 5-4 junior wing/guard Savannah Weaver and 5-7 junior guard/wing Jazmyne Wells.
Hannah Drysdale, a 6-1 junior post, rounds out the starting lineup, and Jaida Ross, an Oregon track signee, and Kayla Seney will contribute key minutes.
Ersepke, a two-time second-team all-SWC selection who averaged 11.2 points per game last season, will be the focal point in Readus’ design of playing soundly, but aggressively, attacking the basket and getting to the foul line.
“Jane settles everything down,” said Readus. “She gives us a very solid presence. She’s going to stir the drink and be the engine of everything we do. She sets the tone and our identity. She’s fundamentally sound and aggressive. She’s tenacious and she’s a winner, and those are all things we want to emphasize in the program.”
Readus saw signs of improved communication, particularly on defense, from an opening-game loss against tough Jesuit to a two-point loss to Newberg.
“Our defense was more sound, and it showed against Newberg,” he said. “We have to put four quarters together as a team.”
“If we perform as a unit the way we’re capable of, we’ll give most teams a pretty solid game,” he said. “But it has to be done together.”
On-the-job training has commenced for the Cavers (3-3), who return one full-time starter, one part-time starter and one other player who got meaningful minutes from a team that made back-to-back second-round state-playoff appearances.
A roster that includes four freshmen presents a new dynamic for 11th-year coach Scott Wakefield, whose team was third in the SWC at 6-4 last year and 16-10 overall.
“We’re very newbie-esque, if that’s a word,” said Wakefield. “Even the juniors in our program, they were JV kids last year. As far as varsity game experience, we’re pretty green.”
It has shown in the early going as Wakefield’s starting lineup has been fluid.
Returning starter Camdyn Bruner, a 5-8 senior, was honorable-mention all-SWC last season. Emily Rund, a 5-9 junior, was the sixth man who occasionally started. Kyle Rucker, a 5-5 senior, also saw appreciable minutes.
They start now, and a variety of faces join them: Isabel Sandoval-Lopez, Sophie Mock, Kaelynn Teagle and Rachel Snyder have all drawn starts.
The Nos. 4 through 10 players on the roster, said Wakefield, are going through “a culture of competition and competitiveness to see who rises to the top and claims those spots.”
That talent is there, he said, to be in the middle of the pack of the SWC.
“If we can get some of this deer-in-the-headlights out of our system — which we knew going in we were going to have — with scheme and some of those things, I think we can be in there,” he said.
The Irish (4-1) and 10th-year coach Brian Brancato have the talent to contend for a third straight title.
With Mirabile as a returning first-team all-SWC selection is Makayla Scurlock. Returning starter Olivia Pierzina received honorable mention, as did another returnee, Harley Sowers.
With Kelty in the middle, it’s easy to understand the optimism about Sheldon’s prospects.
“Sometimes when I complain about things,” laughed Brancato, “I think how we could have it a lot worse.”
The Irish went through the SWC unbeaten last year, posting a 10-0 record and downing up South Medford twice, 59-47 and 60-56. They advanced to the state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Benson.
Kiran Sperry, a 5-9 junior forward, is also a starter.
“It’s a group where all those kids have been with us awhile,” said Brancato, “so they understand the system. It’s more of just getting into game speed. I feel like they’re all experienced players.
“They work hard, they’re just an aggressive, defensive-minded group.”
Mirabile is the leader. The 5-8 senior guard is expected to surpass 1,000 career points in her fourth year as a starter.
She averaged 15.1 points and 3.0 assists per game last year, shooting 39 percent on 3 pointers.
With Mirabile outside and Kelty — who has made a smooth transition from Class 4A to 6A — Brancato has a combination unlike any he’s had before.
“They’re starting to mesh a little bit,” he said, “starting to figure each other out. Aly hasn’t played with a big kid, and I don’t think Reilly has played with a guard of Aly’s caliber, so it’s happening quicker than I thought it would. But they still have things to work on.”
Scurlock, a 5-6 senior, provides an authoritative presence on both offense and defense and is the “one who makes us go,” said Brancato. Pierzina, a 5-6 junior, has improved her offensive game, evolving from a distributor-defender role of a year ago.
Beaux Bruegman, a 5-10 freshman, has been a pleasant surprise, averaging in double figures in the early going.
The Axe (2-3) is under the guidance of its third coach in four years, and while Tash O’Brien doesn’t have previous experience directing a high school program, the former University of Oregon player and assistant coach appears well-qualified.
O’Brien, who most recently was an assistant at Springfield, played three seasons for the Ducks in the late 1990s, then coached on Bev Smith’s staff for eight years.
She takes over a South Eugene team that returns two starters — 5-10 senior forward Aubrey Lewis and 5-6 senior guard Hannah Stein — and placed fourth in the SWC at 4-6 last season and went 10-15 overall.
South Eugene’s other starters are 5-10 sophomore guard Alia Harris, who saw time last year; 5-4 sophomore guard Sofia Megert and 5-11 junior forward Taylor Bryant.
Lewis has already produced two games in which she’s made five 3-pointers, and Megert is an attacking guard who handles the ball well.
O’Brien is pleased with how the Axe has responded to her pack-line, traditional defense that eschews ball denial and “trying not to steal the ball on every pass.” She prefers good defensive position and footwork.
On the flip side, the South Eugene offense has shown lapses handling pressure, but it’s getting better, said O’Brien.
“I think we’re on a good trajectory here,” she said. “I think we’ve got some good players and will be able to compete. It may be a year or two before we’re sort of up there at the top of the league, but I certainly think we can compete hard with the top end of the league, and we might actually surprise a few people down the stretch as well.”
Second-year head coach Dane Tornell — he’s in his seventh season in the program — has five seniors back, including three starters, from a team that went winless in the SWC last season and was 2-23 overall.
The Indians (1-5) have five seniors, including four returning starters in 5-10 strong forward Katie Knudson, 5-9 forward Rylee Russell, 5-4 guard Emma Vredenburg and 5-7 guard Ericka Allen.
Russell paced the Indians in scoring with nearly seven points per game last season.
Junior guard Jazmyn Murphy has provided scoring punch this year.
Others who will contribute as senior guard Kaylee White, junior guard Kalina Anderson and sophomore strong forward Chelsea Miller.
Much of the team is made up of multi-sport athletes who don’t pick up a basketball until the season begins, said Tornell. Hence, it’s taken time for the team to meld.
On the flip side, he added, the program has deep roots down to the third-grade level, with about 100 players involved.
“We’re looking forward to a prosperous future,” he said.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or email@example.com.
SWC Girls Basketball
2020 Coaches Poll
(First-place votes in parentheses)
T1. South Medford (3)23
T1. Sheldon (3)23
3. South Eugene16
4. Grants Pass13
5. North Medford10
2019 Final SWC Standings
COACH: Tom Cole (13th year)
LAST YEAR: 23-6, 2-8 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 4-2
COACH: Terrence Readus (first year)
LAST YEAR: 9-14, 2-8 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 0-4 (entering Thus. play)
COACH: Scott Wakefield (11th year)
LAST YEAR: 16-10, 6-4 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 3-3