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South girls, Crater boys, girls lose out with canceled tourneys

The realization that her high school basketball career had ended hit South Medford senior Bella Pedrojetti in a most surreal way.

She was on a shopping excursion in Portland Thursday morning, an off day — in every sense of the word, as it turned out — for the Panthers. They won their quarterfinal game the night before and weren’t scheduled to play again until Friday afternoon.

That’s when her phone buzzed with an alert from the Oregon School Activities Association that the winter state championships were being canceled immediately, part of the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just really devastated,” said Pedrojetti, who was a ball girl for South Medford when it captured its only state championship in 2012 and dreamed of hugging the top trophy once again.

South Medford crafted a 25-3 record entering its scheduled semifinal Friday against South Salem. The second-seeded Panthers were among the state’s top-ranked teams all season.

“We couldn’t prove to anybody what we’re capable of,” said Pedrojetti, South Medford’s only senior. “It’s super disappointing that it had to come to shutting down the whole tournament. I’m honestly in shock. It doesn’t seem real to me yet. It’s just a bummer.”

The stunningly abrupt culmination affected two other local teams: The Crater boys and girls had each won in the quarterfinals of their respective 5A tournaments in Corvallis and were scheduled to play Thursday.

Those tournaments were thrown into turmoil even earlier in the day after the Pac-12 Conference canceled its men’s tournament, thereby rendering Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum, site of the 5A events, off limits.

The OSAA was in the midst of scrambling to find a replacement facility when the governing body for Oregon prep sports elected to cancel all remaining winter events, which included dance and drill championships along with basketball.

“As this unprecedented public health emergency continues to evolve,” OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said in the release, “we believe that the responsibility to our member schools and communities regarding the health and safety of participants remains our highest priority.”

The OSAA will continue to collaborate with Oregon’s public health authorities, according to the release, in order to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

Chris Schmerbach, the Crater boys coach, also has connections to South Medford. He has two daughters, Emma and Tatum, playing for the Panthers. He felt for all three squads, noting the Comet girls “are playing their best basketball.”

“If you just look around the sporting world,” said Schmerbach, “I feel so bad for so many people. All the seniors that are out there. You think about the Oregon Ducks programs with (Sabrina) Ionescu and Payton Pritchard; they’re not going to get to compete in the national tournament. There are going to be so many stories like that of people affected by this.”

South Medford defeated Sheldon in the quarterfinals Wednesday, 56-47. The Irish, whom the Panthers had also beaten twice in the Southwest Conference, perhaps represented the biggest obstacle to a championship, said South Medford coach Tom Cole.

“You’re always happy to play for something meaningful,” said Cole, “but man, when you add all these things together, it’s a real heartbreak, the what-ifs. This is a year we really felt like we could win it.”

South Medford was in the arena after its game Wednesday night when the OSAA announced it would not allow spectators at remaining games. That was disappointing to the team members, said Cole, but the Panthers expected to continue playing.

In their hotel lobby Thursday morning, they noticed a college tournament on TV in which players warmed up, left the court and didn’t return.

“That’s when the first seed was planted,” said Cole, of the notion the situation could become more dire.

Dominoes fell throughout the morning, then the OSAA announced its decision.

Cole rounded up his players for a final team meeting.

“The end of a season is always tough,” said Cole. “There were a lot of tears. In the end, I tried to put it in perspective for them. It’s hard for kids to understand the kind of collateral of events. This is obviously a national and world issue right now, and clearly there are a lot of events that are having consequences as a result.

“We have to look at the bigger picture, but it’s personal to us, too. It’s personal and it’s hurtful that way.”

Panthers junior Kaili Chamberlin echoed the sentiment that opportunity was lost.

“It was very upsetting because we worked so hard day in and day out,” she said. “We were ready to seize the moment and go and try to win a state championship. So it was very disappointing, but maybe we’ll have another shot at it next year.”

The Crater girls were preparing for their early afternoon game when they learned OSU’s facility could not be used. The Comets went to lunch wondering where the semifinal site would be; they finished it with the news their season was over.

“That made it pretty hectic and emotional,” said Crater coach Scott Dippel. “Obviously I’m disappointed, and I’m disappointed for the girls, but I wasn’t privy to the information that those people who made those decisions had, and I trust that they made the decision for the safety of the kids and the safety of everyone involved.

“So we understand. But it’s difficult to swallow the end of a season like that.”

When the players heard the news, many became emotional.

The Comets downed Churchill, 48-46, to open the tournament Tuesday. Churchill had beaten them twice en route to the Midwestern League crown.

“There were a lot of tears,” said Dippel of when he informed them of the OSAA’s edict.

The Crater boys were seeded third and raised their record to 20-6 with a dominant, 76-43 victory over South Albany in the quarters.

The Comets were fourth last year and fifth the year before.

Having the season derailed in such unexpected fashion was gut wrenching.

“We’re OK,” said Schmerbach, whose team was going through a shoot-around when it learned its fate. “It was kind of a shocker, the finality of it all, especially with having to break it to the seniors. They don’t get to lace it up again for the Comets. That was hard for everyone, our whole program. We had such high expectations going into this.”

To have it “just cut off was strange,” he said. “It’s like worse than losing, in my opinion, because there’s this big question mark, what if, that you’re left with. You don’t know. You can say whatever you want, but you didn’t get to find out.”

Every season leaves an impression, said Cole, who completed his 13th year.

“This will be a memory that I will forever hold,” he said, “and I’m sure every kid will, as well, because it was not conclusive. That will leave us always with this memory of, ‘What if?’”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

South Medford's Bella Pedrojetti.