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‘Wide-open’ 6A tourney awaits South Medford

No. 4-seeded Panthers face No. 5 West Linn in today’s state quarterfinal in Portland

Facing an Oregon-bound point guard in a Class 6A boys basketball state tournament where not many outside the program believe in your potential to be a championship contender.

The more things change, the more they stay the same for South Medford, which will be making a return to the Chiles Center in Portland for the first time in six years at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday against West Linn.

The Lions coincidentally were the last team the Panthers played in the state tournament, falling 74-48 to a West Linn team propelled by then-senior Payton Pritchard.

That season saw the meeting of the state’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the final, but it was a foregone conclusion to most that West Linn would not be denied in what became the final statement in a string of four straight state titles for Pritchard and the Lions (2013-16).

This time around, South Medford enters the matchup seeded No. 4 in the tournament with a 23-2 record that has not seen the Panthers fall to a single team in Oregon.

West Linn (20-3) is the No. 5 seed and features the electrifying abilities of 6-foot junior point guard Jackson Shelstad, who has committed to the Ducks and leads the 6A in scoring at nearly 27 points per game.

“They’re pretty good and Jackson Shelstad is the best player in the state,” said South Medford coach James Wightman of the Lions. “He is very electric with the ball. He is more athletic than Payton Pritchard, which I think Payton would not want to hear that, but I think he is. He doesn’t have all the pieces that Payton had — they were loaded in so many other spots last time, too — but he’s somebody who is going to come down and attack and be unafraid.”

Count the Panthers in that mix, though, of players who expect to be unafraid today when what is considered a wide-open state tourney tips off.

“It’s a winnable game for us,” said Wightman. “We’re not going in saying, ‘Let’s just try and keep it close,’ like we did six years ago. We can win this game.”

“The state is so wide open; I can see all eight teams winning it,” added the sixth-year head coach. “It’s crazy. There’s not an alpha like that West Linn team (in 2016) or any of that. It’s going to make it a lot of fun.”

For South Medford, this season has just been a continuation of last spring’s COVID-reduced campaign that saw the Panthers go 14-1 in regional play.

The confidence gained from that experience with carryover players, and this season through a challenging schedule that included a road win at Grant and competition in The Hardwood Invite in Washington, has Wightman’s crew optimistic.

“They’ve wanted this and we’ve talked about it all season,” said Wightman of his balanced lineup. “We set eight team goals and our No. 8 team goal was to get back to the Chiles Center and finish in the top 8 in the rankings, and we did.

“They’ve made every goal, so why not us? I don’t know why it can’t be us. I know that we’re not at full strength but we’ve kind of moved on from that with (playoff) wins against Sunset and West Salem and shown that we can still be pretty good.”

The playing status of sophomore point guard Jackson Weiland remains up in the air after surgery stemming from a collarbone injury, but South Medford will have senior Junior Sleezer back in action following an illness and the Panthers have seen plenty of players rise to the occasion when called upon this season.

Senior forward Devon Malcolm leads South Medford in scoring (15.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.6 per game) but the Panthers have a trio of others who averaged double-digit scoring this season in freshman Boden Howell (15.0), Sleezer (13.2) and Weiland (10.5).

“To be able to have several guys who can step out and make some shots for us is huge,” said Wightman, whose Panthers average nearly 68 points per game and allow just over 45.

Minus Sleezer and Weiland in last Friday’s second-round win over West Salem, senior Mike Adee scored 12 points and freshman Drew Hall contributed five rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.

“Last Friday showed a lot about how so many guys are willing and capable of stepping up,” said Wightman, whose team also got solid efforts from seniors Desmond Clayborne, Titus Bloodsaw and Gabe Adams.

“Drew Hall has really emerged,” he added, “and I think for us to win, we’re going to need someone like a Drew or a Mike Adee to maybe step up and make some shots.”

South Medford, however, doesn’t have the market cornered on the ability to make shots.

West Linn knocked down 15 3-pointers in an opening-round win over Ida B. Wells and Shelstad equaled his effort in that game with another six 3-pointers alone in a 71-54 win over Jesuit that saw him score 40 points overall.

The 170-pound point guard is averaging 38 points in the playoffs after being named Three Rivers League player of the year. The four-star recruit is No. 52 on the ESPN 60 rankings for the Class of 2023.

“They set a lot of on-balls for him and he comes downhill at you in full attack mode,” said Wightman of Shelstad. “He can pull up on a dime from 25 feet or he can hesitate and he can go past you, right and left. He’s a Pac-12 point guard, there’s no question.”

The Lions also have potent running mates in senior Zeke Viuhkola (6-2) and junior Mark Hamper (6-3), and juniors Blake Oltmans (6-1) and Drake Gabel (6-2) each had three 3-pointers against Ida B. Wells.

Viuhkola is the son of head coach Eric Viuhkola, who is on his second stint at West Linn and brings championship experience and a wealth of tournament knowledge to this week’s tourney.

The younger Viuhkola averages about 16 points per game after posting similar numbers as a junior, when he shot 46% from beyond the arc.

“He can really shoot the ball,” said Wightman. “He is a basketball player so we have to make sure we’re aware of him as well.”

West Linn’s losses this season came against top-seeded Tualatin (twice) and Grant.

Tualatin (23-2) and eighth-seeded Beaverton (19-6) kick off the quarterfinal round at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The evening games showcase No. 3 Cleveland (22-4) against No. 11 Mountainside (19-7) at 6:30 and unbeaten and second-seeded Summit (25-0) against No. 7 Roosevelt (21-6) at 8:15.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune South Medford freshman Boden Howell is second in scoring for the Panthers this season with 15.0 points per game entering today’s state quarterfinals.