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South girls celebrate spring success, seniors’ college plans

There were plenty of reasons for the South Medford girls basketball team to celebrate Friday.

Not just about what the Panthers just achieved this spring, either. It was also about the future and what their six seniors are about to embark on in a matter of weeks.

As South players, coaches and parents were on hand to see the team presented with the state championship trophy they won last month for their unbeaten 2021 spring season, all six of the Panthers’ seniors officially signed letters of intent to play at the collegiate level.

Senior forward Kaili Chamberlin signed with McNeese State in Louisiana, while guard Toni Coleman is set to play at Chico State and guard Bella Stone at UC Santa Cruz. Guard Emma Schmerbach signed with Linfield University in McMinnville, and guard Shakia Teague-Perry will play locally at Southern Oregon University in the fall. Rounding out the group is guard Laini Dahlin, who will play at Lane Community College in Eugene.

“It was a very proud moment and a very emotional moment just because really doing it after winning a state championship and the kind of emotion behind it made it even more meaningful,” South Medford head coach Tom Cole said. “We knew those kids had achieved that going into the season, but to celebrate it and celebrate it all as one, it made everybody proud. I know I was really proud and it validated the many years they have been working toward goals and win a state championship.

“As little girls, many of them who were ball girls and all of them who played in our youth program growing up, this idea that one day they, too, would use this as a springboard to an education. It was special.”

It marked the biggest group of seniors that Cole has seen sign with colleges at once, and one that played a crucial part in what the Panthers just accomplished.

“This is the largest senior class I’ve ever had in my 15 years. We’ve had years when we’ve had no seniors, and this by far is the largest,” Cole said, “and certainly with all of them achieving this, it’s pretty unique.”

It was also a pretty good way to cap a week which began with South players getting a surprise visit from Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at Kids Unlimited.

“All of the seniors were there for the OBJ visit, so it’s kind of funny that it’s a celebration week,” Cole said with a laugh. “I’m sure they would tell you that (Friday’s ceremony) was really meaningful, but I also know that those shots with a hug with OBJ were, in their minds, life changing.”

South went 13-0 during the 2021 spring season, including an impressive showing at the 6A/5A culminating week tournament in Portland. The Panthers beat Southwest Conference rival Sheldon 64-33 in the championship game, marking the first time a South team has run the table since the 2012 squad that went 30-0 and captured the 6A state title.

Cole described the win over Sheldon as the “perfect culmination of a lot of years with these kids,” noting that so many of them were starters during their freshman seasons in 2018.

The same kind of description was used by Cole when it came to Friday’s ceremony.

“This was more of a kind of finality, the defining ceremony,” Cole said. “Everything over the season has been interrupted and unpredictable and our goal was to win a state championship and our goal was to share that experience with celebrating not only something like that but also the accomplishment of the individuals of going on and playing at a higher level. It was always this spot of this goal to do it together and do all these things together in this year we didn’t think was going to happen. We were fortunate enough that it all worked out.”

Chamberlain, the Southern Oregon Conference’s player of the year this spring, averaged 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals for the Panthers. Even more impressive was the fact that those numbers often came in limited minutes due to South winning by such a large margin against league opposition.

Coleman and Schmerbach were also first-team SOC selections in their senior seasons. Coleman, the Panthers’ speedy point guard, averaged 8.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game, while Schmerbach added 7.5 points and 2.3 steals.

Stone, who averaged 3.2 assists and a team-best 3.2 steals a game, was a second-team all-SOC pick in the spring. Teague-Perry averaged 1.8 points and 3.2 rebounds and was an honorable mention selection.

Dahlin averaged 2.9 points.

“It’s an accomplishment they can share with the kids they looked up to growing up and aspired to one day be,” Cole said. “To see it all come full circle and for them to achieve that, it’s really rewarding as a coach.”

In all, South players and coaches got to celebrate their accomplishments both as a team and what is coming for them in the future. And for a program that is just a few weeks removed from an unbeaten season, you might as well chalk Friday up as another win for the Panthers.

“I just think that it’s special when you can be a part of history,” Cole said. “There’s only one other team that’s ever been undefeated in a season and that was our 2012 team that was incredibly special and a nationally ranked team. This team had the opportunity to make history as well. While it’s hard to compare them to the team in 2012, no one will ever forget this year, this COVID year, and the timing, the circumstance, the adversity that made this season so unique.

“We finished this season a week before Fourth of July, so there’s so much that we will always remember. But in the midst of all those things, they were perfect, and that can never be taken from them.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

South Medford players and coaches pose for a picture after the Panthers’ six seniors signed their respective letters of intent to play collegiately in the fall. This was South’s largest group of seniors to move on to college basketball in Tom Cole’s tenure as head coach. (Photo courtesy of Tom Cole)