South Medford has eyes on the SWC prize
There have been only two years in the past 12 when the South Medford girls basketball team hasn’t been able to hang a conference banner so, yeah, the Panthers expect to be in the hunt for this year’s Southwest Conference championship.
But when league play officially kicks off Tuesday, you won’t find South Medford head coach Tom Cole or any of his players making reservations for a net-cutting ceremony.
“I have a great deal of faith in our kids,” said Cole, “but I don’t underestimate what the rest of those teams are capable of doing on any given night. The coaches in this league are good and they are all capable of making their teams better.”
As evidence by Cole’s cautionary approach, five of the SWC’s seven teams will enter conference play with a winning record and four of them fall among the top-15 teams in the Class 6A state power rankings in South Medford (No. 1), Grants Pass (No. 8), Willamette (No. 10) and Sheldon (No. 13).
“I think this year’s conference is collectively one of the strongest conferences in the state,” said Cole. “Everybody is better than they were last year. Some players may have moved on but there are still quality kids at quality programs in this conference.”
“I think a lot of teams are still figuring out who they are and their identity, and we’re one of them,” he added. “But, overall, the Southwest Conference is the strongest in terms of depth from top to bottom that I can remember in a really long time.”
That top spot, however, expects to have the Panthers’ fingerprints all over it.
With Oregon State-bound Donovyn Hunter leading the charge with fellow seniors Kendall Fealey and Tatum Schmerbach, South Medford will definitely be in the mix for a potential fourth straight SWC title.
“Everybody knows they’ve got that target on their back probably season after season,” said North Medford head coach JT Thomas of the Panthers. “South Medford has a quality program and obviously great athletes for basketball. The conference runs through them most of the time. I think right now it’s theirs to defend and so everybody’s got to come after them.”
Hunter’s presence alone is a fantastic foundation block for the Panthers, with the 5-foot-11 all-state guard showing well in all areas of the game. Hunter is averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.4 steals and 1.6 assists per game.
“Donovyn Hunter is far more unrecognized for how truly gifted and diverse and complete of a player that she is,” said Cole. “Because she’s such an unassuming person and handles herself with such a high level of class and sportsmanship, maybe she doesn’t get as noticed statewide. She’s not beating her chest or flexing to the crowd, she’s not trying to do anything other than play great basketball, be a great teammate and be competitive on both ends of the floor. And she does that every single game that she goes out.”
In Fealey and Tatum Schmerbach, the Panthers have an experienced set of leaders to help spur along what is one of South Medford’s youngest rosters in a few years (six freshmen, one junior, one sophomore).
Fealey is averaging 9.2 points and 1.6 assists per game, while Tatum Schmerbach has provided all the in-game intangibles with 7.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game.
“Kendall Fealey and Tatum Schmerbach are not just glue kids, they are foundation kids,” said Cole. “They’re much more impactful because they both are smart players and unselfish and hard workers. They have both worked themselves into being huge contributors for us.”
At 6-1, junior Kim Ceron has the length to challenge shots and is active in the paint to fill a vital role for the Panthers, while 5-10 sophomore Sara Schmerbach (6.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.6 steals) provides the grit to her game that stirs things up for South.
“She has a tenacity about her, a doggedness about her commitment on defense and her energy level in playing,” Cole said of the younger Schmerbach. “She’s relentless on defense, and she’s learning how to take that energy and harness it and be productive.”
In what may be one of the most polished freshman classes to enter South Medford’s program under Cole, Taylor Young (10.2 points, 2.9 steals), Mayen Akpan (4.7 rebounds) and Dyllyn Howell (3.5 points) highlight a crew that refuses to give up ground when the veterans are on the sidelines.
That development has been a direct result of the Panther veterans, who have shown steady leadership in helping the youngsters shine.
“I’m super proud of the way that they have possessed the maturity to really do what’s best for our team and for the program,” said Cole. “They know that has meant a lot of compromising minutes in games that there has been a disparity in scores. Every kid wants to play as much as they can but they’ve been really unselfish about trying to also balance winning with development.”
Development is the buzzword across town at North Medford, where Thomas said he’s seeing promising signs in his second season back with the program. The Black Tornado enters conference play with a 4-7 record that could conceivably have been reversed had it not been for a handful of game-changing plays.
“I’m pleased with the direction they’re going,” said Thomas, whose team has two losses of two points or less and only two double-digit defeats. “Obviously we’ve got to learn how to compete for 32 minutes at the varsity level, and that entails understanding the losses and learning how to win.”
“The first thing that has to happen is that we have to be in games to have meaningful lessons, which we have been,” he added. “We’re playing a good schedule with some good clubs in our state and good clubs out of our state and lots of different kinds of basketball, and the kids have responded really well.”
Seniors Ali Stevens and Diya Patel have played a key role in steadying the ship for North Medford, with the duo combining to average about 10 points per game and Stevens managing 2.9 steals per game.
Sophomores Caileigh Raines and Olivia Boger have anchored the Black Tornado with their versatile efforts, becoming more and more reliable as go-to players with each varsity game under their belts.
Raines is averaging 14.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 2.2 assists, while Boger has come through with 8.7 points, 2.9 steals and 2.8 assists per game.
“A lot of it is just flat-out competitiveness,” Thomas said of the impact from the young duo. “Figuring out how to keep that under control at times is a maturing process.”
North Medford’s last conference title came five years ago but that’s not on the forefront of Thomas’ mind this season. The main focus has been on taking those steps forward each day that one day will lead his players back toward the top of the league.
“They play hard but we can get a little bit out of control sometimes trying to do the right thing,” he said. “But that’s something I encourage because we can learn quicker if we are not afraid of the moment, and these girls haven’t been afraid of the moment.”
Similar things could be said about Grants Pass, which returns its entire starting lineup and the bulk of its roster from a year ago.
With sharp-shooting junior guard Brooke Anderson leading the way, the Cavers have jumped to an 8-2 start and are capable of getting contributions up and down the lineup for head coach Scott Wakefield.
Brooklyn Wakefield (5-10) and Mia Thompson (5-10) lock down the paint for GP, while Anderson, Raegan Bruner and Sophie Mock are reliable scorers. Anderson is especially adept beyond the arc but can break down the defense off the dribble.
With Sheldon returning the likes of Beaux Bruegman and Diamond Wright, the Irish are sure to contend for the SWC title, and newcomer Willamette joins the fray with a loaded lineup of up-and-comers eager to compete again at the 6A level.
“There are some really dangerous teams out there,” said Cole. “It’s not going to come easy.”
COACH: Tom Cole (16th year)
LAST YEAR: 24-5, 10-0 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 10-2
COACH: JT Thomas (second year)
LAST YEAR: 8-15, 2-8 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 4-7
COACH: Scott Wakefield (12th year)
LAST YEAR: 13-10, 5-5 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 8-2
2021-22 — South Medford (10-0)
2020-21 — South Medford (5-0)
2019-20 — South Medford (10-0)
2018-19 — Sheldon (10-0)
2017-18 — North Medford (10-2), Sheldon (10-2)
2016-17 — South Medford (12-0)
2015-16 — South Medford (14-0)
2014-15 — South Medford (14-0)
6A Southern Oregon Hybrid
2013-14 — South Medford (12-0)
2012-13 — South Medford
2011-12 — South Medford
2010-11 — South Medford
2009-10 — South Eugene
2008-09 — South Eugene
2007-08 — North Medford
2006-07 — Sheldon
Southern Oregon Conference
2005-06 — Ashland, Roseburg, Grants Pass
2004-05 — North Medford, Ashland
2003-04 — Crater
2002-03 — Roseburg
2001-02 — Crater
2000-01 — Crater
1999-00 — Crater
1998-99 — Ashland
1997-98 — Crater
1996-97 — Crater
1995-96 — Crater
1994-95 — South Medford
1993-94 — Mazama
1992-93 — Mazama
1991-92 — Mazama
1990-91 — Klamath Union
1989-90 — Klamath Union
1988-89 — Roseburg
1987-88 — Klamath Union
1986-87 — Roseburg
1985-86 — Roseburg
1984-85 — Klamath Union
1983-84 — Klamath Union
1982-83 — Grants Pass
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