The first time for North Medford’s boys basketball team was a relief.
The second time was pure joy.
A third straight Southwest Conference title? That will be a challenge.
“It’s going to be a chore, that’s for sure,” said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, whose team snapped an 18-year league title drought two years ago. “It’s never easy in this league.”
This year may be especially wide open, with three SWC teams earning first-place votes in a coaches poll and others fully capable of altering the course of a perceived favorite when league play begins Jan. 18.
SWC teams will square off against one another in nonconference meetings over the next week to help field a scheduling void brought on when the conference dropped to six teams over the summer.
In preseason voting, Sheldon edged out North Medford as the favorite. The Irish received three first-place votes and totaled 22 points, and North Medford got two first-place votes with 20 points.
South Eugene came in third with 17 points, with Roseburg earning the other first-place vote to total 15 points in fourth place. Grants Pass (11) and South Medford (5) rounded out the voting.
For the Black Tornado, there’s no question that challenging for the conference title is status quo these days.
“I like what we return,” said Plankenhorn, in his 13th year. “I know a lot of them didn’t get to start or play a million minutes last year, but I like our size and athletic ability and our guards are guys who can shoot. It’s a nice combination of things that makes for a good basketball team.”
North Medford returns only one starter in 6-foot-5 senior post Eli Spence but several other players saw varsity playing time last season, especially senior guards Darrius Wells and Jaray Thomas and senior wing Garrett Parker.
Spence averaged nearly seven points and six rebounds last year with his strength and athleticism in the paint, while Wells and Thomas could have easily been in the starting rotation in only their first year with the team as out-of-state transfers. Each showed a knack for attacking the basket and has honed his perimeter play.
Parker was one of the team’s top 3-point shooters and a key ingredient off the bench last year, providing an interesting mismatch with his 6-6 frame and skills in and out of the paint.
With 6-4 junior post Jett Carpenter also seeing time last year, and more prominent roles off the junior varsity for Manuel Angulo (6-3 senior) and Victor Orozco-Bernal (6-1 junior), North Medford entered the season feeling confident about its experience.
Adding sophomore guards Nick Karrick and Landon Ellis to the mix only enhances Plankenhorn’s options.
“We’ll definitely look a lot like all the other North teams, getting the ball up and down the court,” said the coach. “We may be able to pressure more than the last couple years; we definitely have the athletes to go out there and do that and compete.”
Third-year head coach James Wightman has had his share of challenges since taking over at South Medford, but this year may be the greatest with the least experienced team in the SWC.
The Panthers return only one starter in 5-9 junior guard Sherman Hunter and two others with varsity experience in 5-11 senior guard Trent DeBoer and 6-2 junior forward Keegan Losinski.
“Those three guys are going to have to be big-time for us,” said Wightman.
Early results have been mixed, with the Panthers pinned by a 1-11 record that includes four losses by five points or less.
“We’re probably going to take some more lumps this year and some hits on the chin,” said Wightman, “but I think that if they’re willing to compete, we can continue to develop and hopefully change all that.”
An early season concussion suffered by Losinski, who was averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, has hindered South Medford’s growth, but he should be OK for league play.
Hunter is averaging 15.8 points behind 39 percent shooting from 3-point range, with DeBoer and seniors Giovanni Bottero (6-2 forward) and Jake Ramsay (6-3 post) adding around seven points per game.
Turnovers continue to be an issue, with the Panthers averaging 15 per game as they try to acclimate themselves with the varsity pace of play.
“We’ve got to keep these kids together and weather the storm and keep on plugging away,” said Wightman. “Most of these guys have gone from the freshman level to now all of a sudden playing at the varsity pace, and that’s tough.”
Junior Ben Harmon, a 6-1 wing, and freshman Junior Sleezer, a 5-10 point guard, could be X factors for South Medford’s growth, along with 6-4 sophomore Jude Pannell and 5-10 junior Peyton Shepard.
SWC favorite Sheldon offers a matchup nightmare in the paint with returning seniors Dominic McGarvey (6-9) and Patrick Herbert (6-6), who each averaged nearly a double-double last year. Both are extremely skilled on the offensive end but really shine on defense with their shot-blocking ability and sure-handed rebound skills.
Senior sharp-shooter Kameron Owen is a 3-point weapon against opponents hoping to clog the middle, and senior point guard Jackson Tucker can slice through the defense to set up teammates or finish on his own. Junior Dawson Prickel is dubbed the team’s “glue guy” by head coach Daniel Clark for hustle and stout defense, which complement his consistent shooting.
No player on the Sheldon roster is shorter than 6-foot, giving the Irish a size advantage over nearly each team they play. Guards Brycen Seghetti and Ben Gittins also give Sheldon depth in scoring.
Returning junior starters Aidan Clark (6-8 forward) and Sam Harris (5-10 guard) earned all-conference recognition last year, while 6-4 senior Coleman McAninch, 6-5 senior Jason Berryman and 6-2 junior Bryce Boettcher all logged varsity minutes last season for head coach Dave Hancock.
With the addition of 6-4 junior Josh Paul, a transfer from Sheldon, and a host of complementary guards, the Axe is confident it can challenge for an SWC title.
Depth may be a concern, but South Eugene’s length and balanced scoring will keep it competitive in most matchups.
After languishing at the bottom of the conference for the past two seasons, this could be a breakout year for Roseburg and head coach Mike Pardon.
Senior Collin Warmouth, a 6-3 sharpshooter, returns as a first-team all-SWC pick the past two seasons and is flanked by two potent weapons in 6-7 senior forward Jonathan Stone and 6-4 senior post Storm Scott, who transferred in from Mountain View.
Warmouth has consistently been one of the SWC’s top scorers but now has his most complete and experienced crew around him to help the Indians take it to a new level thus far at 9-3.
Roseburg also returns seniors Kaden Seely and Carson Ellis and junior Merhawi Lake, with senior newcomer D’Angelo Adams adding to the overall athleticism for an Indians team angling to reach the state playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Senior point guard Taylor Anderson was a first-team all-SWC pick last year and a driving force for why Grants Pass believes it can challenge for one of the conference’s four automatic playoff bids.
The shifty 5-10 standout is a chore to defend and is complemented by returning senior starters Korbin Lopez (6-2 forward) and Randy Clark (6-0 guard).
Senior post Ethan Lackey is GP’s tallest player at 6-5 and is joined in the paint by 6-4 senior Braeden Bellum and 6-3 junior Chase Coyle for the guard-oriented team.
Senior Skyler Rich and juniors Anthony Maravilla and Cade Anderson also expect to be key figures.
Head coach Tyler York hopes his team’s athleticism and versatility will spur the team toward the top half of the SWC.
“We have the ability to shoot the ball really well and we can get out fast in transition,” he said. “Our biggest key to success will be rebounding the basketball. We have to be able to finish defensive possessions by rebounding. With what we lost and our lack of size, this will be key.”