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Sleezer comes full circle for South Medford

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Senior guard has been pivotal in Panthers going from 2-22 to 22-2 as bookends to his 4-year run

Junior Sleezer didn’t lead the Southwest Conference in scoring.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound South Medford boys basketball standout didn’t lead the league in rebounding, either.

But what the senior did do this season was lay it all on the line every time out and simply lead the SWC champions — and that has been more than enough for the Panthers.

It was also more than enough for the conference’s coaches, who recently named Sleezer the SWC boys basketball player of the year for all of his intangibles.

“That really means a lot to me,” Sleezer said of the MVP voting in a conference ripe with star power. “It shows me how appreciated I am by the coaches, not only my coach but all the coaches in our conference. I wasn’t the highest scoring player in our league or anything like that, but it definitely showed that I was one of the more effective people in the league and that I could affect the game without just scoring, I can do a bunch of other things to affect the game.”

Sacrificing his own statistical notoriety for the betterment of his team overall, Sleezer has been the epitome of a team player for South Medford, and enjoyed one of the more rewarding turnarounds a player could ever dream of happening.

The fourth-seeded Panthers take a 22-2 record into the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs tonight against No. 13 seed West Salem (18-6), with tipoff at 6 p.m.

Sleezer’s varsity journey began three years ago with a 2-22 campaign and his rise to prominence has been intertwined with that of the Panthers program.

“When he was a freshman, I told him that he was going to be the one that is going to turn this thing around,” said South Medford head coach James Wightman, who took over the program from Panthers legend Dennis Murphy in the 2016-17 season but suffered some lean early years beset by player injuries. “He kind of looked at me like, ‘Wait, what? I’m only a freshman.’

“The script has totally flipped for him and I’m just so proud of him,” added Wightman. “It’s kind of ironic that it was 2-22 and now it’s 22-2, and he’s been a big part of it all. He’s worked hard and it’s improved every year for him.”

Sleezer enters tonight’s game averaging 13.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals for the Panthers — all numbers that could be higher if he wanted to force the issue.

Instead, it’s the lessons learned during that woeful freshman year that has allowed him to realize that true success comes through teamwork and the comfort in allowing others to shine alongside you.

“I think it definitely did shape me,” Sleezer said of his freshman campaign. “It showed me that even if we do have players but we’re not all playing together, then for the most part we’re not going to get the result that we want.

“That really showed my freshman year. We had some pretty decent players and we ended up not being able to really do anything. I’ve really become more of a team player since then and I’ve loved the experience.”

To wit, South Medford boasts a balanced attack that has four players averaging double-digit scoring — a feat you won’t find anywhere else in the SWC — thanks to the talents of senior Devon Malcolm (15.5 points, 8.6 rebounds), sophomore Jackson Weiland (10.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists) and freshman Boden Howell (14.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists).

“That’s definitely one of my favorite things to do is getting everyone else involved,” Sleezer said. “I’m not a super aggressive person or anything, but I like being able to lead a group and show results that not many people can show.”

It’s safe to say Wightman has enjoyed the leadership exhibited by Sleezer, too.

“For him and I, it’s been one of those special things where I invested in him and it’s worked out for the both of us and for the program,” said the coach. “It’s good stuff to see how far we’ve come, for sure. He’s just a stellar dude and one helluva kid off the floor, too, so that makes it even more of a gratifying thing. I’m just really happy for him.”

Where Sleezer may be at his best is on the defensive end for the Panthers, who are allowing only 45 points per game. Sleezer routinely draws the toughest defensive assignment, and has rarely let his team down in that department.

“He is a big deal on the defensive end,” Wightman said. “I’ve been around here since ’94 and he might be our best defender that we’ve ever had, and that’s huge. Everyone talks about points per game, but he just gets after it and he changes a lot for us.”

It’s a yeomanlike role others may lament, but one Sleezer truly relishes.

“I really take pride in my defense,” the 18-year-old co-captain said. “Defense is something I love to do. I give my best effort every play that I can on offense and defense, but defense is definitely one of my favorite parts about basketball. It shows how far hustle and effort can take you.”

It also shows that you don’t have to average 30 points per game to influence the outcome.

“Junior is just so important to what we do,” Wightman said. “He just brings that poise and that composure. He’s a lead-by-example type of guy. He’s not really a big talker or anything like that, he just goes out there and takes care of business.”

And by remaining humble and true to the team, Sleezer now finds himself on the edge of guiding the Panthers back to the state tournament for the first time in six years.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” Sleezer said with a deep breath, soaking it all in. “I’ve had three amazing coaches (Wightman plus assistant coaches Jamie Hammericksen and Jared Pulver) that have stuck with me throughout these last four years and they’ve pushed me in so many different ways that no one else has been able to, and they’ve believed in me ever since I first came to South. It’s been awesome. Especially where we are right now, it’s crazy from the comeback of where we used to be.

“It would mean a lot,” he added of potentially advancing to the state tournament, “because our program hasn’t been there in a while. It would be a great experience, not only for our seniors because none of us have really been there, but an amazing experience for the younger kids, too, because I think the next few years they could make a really big mark and get in the playoffs again and do really well.”

Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer was named Southwest Conference player of the year for his all-around efforts for the champion Panthers.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer at practice.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer drives to the basket during the second quarter against Sunset.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer and Forest Grove’s Kaden Clute go for the loose ball during the third quarter of the Abby’s Holiday Classic.