After years of getting close, North Medford’s boys basketball team finally broke through last season to claim its first conference title in 18 years.
To do so again, however, may take a little more effort given the narrow gap that exists between the top three teams in the Southwest Conference, according to the conference’s coaches.
In the preseason coaches’ poll, North Medford received the most first-place votes with three but found itself second to South Eugene when it came to nominating a favorite to gain this year’s SWC crown.
In a logjam at the top, South Eugene and Sheldon each received two first-place votes and the Axemen carried a narrow margin for the top spot with 32 points over North Medford (30) and Sheldon (29).
Roseburg and Willamette tied for fourth place with 18 points, followed by Grants Pass (12) and South Medford (8), making this potentially the first season the Panthers have ever been picked to finish last in the conference.
“There’s no easy nights in the Southwest Conference,” said Sheldon head coach Dan Clark. “The last few years maybe there was a top four and a bottom four, but this year I don’t see that. I see tough, grind-it-out wins coming every night.”
North Medford relied on a host of seniors and some favorable matchup options to post an 11-1 record in SWC play last season and earn its first conference title since 1999. One of the Black Tornado’s top mismatches returns in senior Kaison Faust, who averaged 15.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists last year for a squad that went 0-2 at the Class 6A state tournament.
The 6-foot-2 Faust is dynamic with his ability to spring off the floor and finish around the rim and has worked hard to cultivate his all-around game.
“He is so much better than he was last year,” said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, “and he was almost a player of the year player in our conference then and he’s 10 times better. His all-around game is so much improved, and he hasn’t even shown the outside game yet but in practice we get to see it all the time.”
Faust is averaging 25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists thus far for the Black Tornado (11-1) and has been complemented well so far by senior point guard Oscar Banuelos (12.3 point, 3.7 assists), senior guard Quinton Rumrey (9.1 points) and 6-5 junior post Eli Spence (7.2 points, 6.8 rebounds).
With Banuelos spurring along an opportunistic offense that loves to get out in transition and stretch the defense, North Medford has been able to average nearly 70 points per game and create scoring surges that have buried opponents.
“That is a nice thing to have in basketball,” said Plankenhorn, “the ability to get out and pressure and play the way we want to which is up and down the floor, and we have athletes to do it.”
Senior post Jake O’Connor has also been instrumental in his ability to do all the unheralded things for North Medford while also chipping in 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
A growing positive for the Black Tornado has been its production off the bench, with junior transfer guards Darrius Wells (Los Angeles) and Jaray Thomas (Chicago) providing a nice bridge to go along with smooth-shooting junior Garrett Parker.
One issue thus far has been a subpar effort in long-range shooting, with North shooting only 27 percent from 3-point range, but the Tornado does have capable shooters in Banuelos, Rumrey, Wells and Parker.
“Once we start making perimeter shots teams are really going to be in trouble because we haven’t made many of those yet,” said Plankenhorn. “But if we’re going to win a title, our defense has to get better. We’re solid but we’re not to the great level and that’s what championship teams have, is that great defensive end.”
Contending for a conference crown has been a staple of the South Medford program, winners of 13 titles in the past 16 years, but the reality is the Panthers currently find themselves in rebuilding mode with limited varsity experience.
Kaleb Franklin’s torn ACL during football cost South Medford (4-7) the shot at being led by a four-year varsity player at point guard, while energy post Chase Cota has graduated early so he can become an early enrollee at UCLA and fellow senior Jaylin Parnell also focusing on his football future. Add the fact that smooth senior Jaalen Owens is potentially out for the season due to a lingering back injury and second-year head coach James Wightman has had to adjust on the fly.
“You lose three or four key components that should be playing right now and starting, I don’t know who survives that,” said Plankenhorn. “That’s like you telling me I guess I’m taking Oscar and Kaison and Q out of my lineup. I’m probably mediocre. I think I have a lot of depth in my program but I don’t know how much depth I can fill in one year. Next year you might be able to, but not the year that it happens.”
With a host of players also turning out late following the Panthers’ runner-up finish in football, consistency has been an issue thus far but Wightman believes it’s only a matter of time before his team’s true colors begin to show.
Owens and 6-9 senior post Jesse Higgins are the only South players with varsity experience but there are some intriguing puzzle pieces to play with. Despite his size, Higgins may have one of the best shooting touches on the squad and is tough to contend with in high-low sets with fellow senior Nick Randleman.
Senior guard Robbie Patterson supplies all the hustle and guile one could hope for on the hardcourt while sophomore Sherman Hunter is an up-and-coming scorer to make teams be honest defensively and not overload the paint.
Senior Caleb English (6-9), junior Thomas Fealey (6-4) and sophomore Keegan Losinski (6-2) give the Panthers good options around the basket.
“We’re looking to take advantage of our height and if they double down we’re going to kick it out and we expect our guys to make some shots,” said Wightman.
Juniors Payton Owens and Trent DeBoer have helped steer the ship so far in replacing Franklin, with good things expected from sophomore Austin Boster, whose senior brother Ty is another impact player off the bench.
Higgins leads the team at 16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, with Randleman and Hunter each averaging around nine points.
Senior Jay Elmore, a 6-1 guard, led the SWC in scoring last year and was named conference player of the year after leading his team to a runner-up finish. The Axemen (5-7) will need more of the same if they are going to secure their second SWC title in four years.
Senior guards Will Graves (6-4) and Calvin Mitchell (6-2) give head coach Dave Hancock good balance in the backcourt, with 6-8 sophomore forward Aidan Clark posing some matchup problems of his own.
South Eugene also added 6-5 transfer Josh Soifer from Canada to give the Axemen good length and solid depth.
Elmore is averaging 22.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists thus far, with Graves (8.2 ppg) expected back soon from a knee injury and junior Coleman McAninch (5.2 ppg) also sparking a deep scoring attack with 6-6 senior Henry Lininger that has fared OK despite one of the league’s most challenging schedules thus far.
Sheldon can put together one of the most imposing lineups across the board in terms of height and prowess in the paint with 6-5 junior Patrick Herbert and 6-4 senior Zak Hankins getting help from 6-8 junior Dominic McGarvey and 6-4 senior Uta Mageo.
The addition of talented shooting guard Devante Bailey, a 6-0 senior from Thurston, gives the Irish a potent scoring threat to complement slashing 5-8 senior point guard Anthony LuVert.
Herbert and McGarvey each are close to averaging double-doubles for the Irish (6-5), while LuVert got a late start to this season due to an ankle injury but adds a tempo-changing component.
“They’ve put in the work and I think we’re right there and ready to break out this year,” said Sheldon head coach Dan Clark.
Junior guard Collin Warmouth was a first-team all-SWC pick one year ago and will look to build on that success this year as the driving force for Roseburg, which took a hit with the season-long loss to injury of senior Luke Lucido but returns two other starters in senior Cody Johnson and junior Jonathan Stone.
Consistent play and low-post scoring have been issues for the Indians (8-3), but head coach Mike Pardon has liked his team’s effort on defense and in team rebounding. Juniors Kaden Seely and Carson Ellis have been helpful in the post, with senior guard Jon Crince and junior guard Merhawi Lake tasked with creating offense to complement long-range threat Warmouth.
Game experience for returning starters Luke Burke — a second-team all-SWC pick — fellow junior guard Owen Cross and seniors Seth Skeele and Dylan Reichenberger, both all-SWC honorable mention picks, gives Willamette a leg up on many in the SWC.
Junior Jacob Curtis and senior Taylor Bridge-Eiler are joined by juniors Cooper Arnold and Jondre Smith to give the Wolverines a lineup that is able to run well in transition and share the ball for fifth-year head coach Chad Carpenter.
Burke stokes the fires with his ability to break down defenses at point guard and as a steady defender on the other end, while Curtis and Cross have shared a bulk of the scoring load. The Wolverines (6-6) aren’t shy about putting shots up from the perimeter but have worked to introduce more activity in the post this season.
Second-year head coach Tyler York has tremendous tools to work with in returning starters Tayler Phillips (6-6 senior), Tyler Rund (6-4 senior) and Taylor Anderson (5-10 junior point guard). All three were honorable mention all-SWC performers a year ago and have already helped Grants Pass (6-5) match its win total from last season.
The Cavemen could provide for some of the biggest upsets in the SWC this season given its versatility, depth and overall athleticism, and York’s players are no strangers to close contests with three wins in four games separated by six points or less.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry