A year ago, the story heading into the Southwest Conference girls basketball season was that South Medford’s stranglehold on the league would, in light of the Panthers’ extreme youth movement, almost certainly come to an end and the only question was which of its league rivals would do the honors.
Ultimately, Sheldon and North Medford both got their shots in — Sheldon snapped the Panthers’ 92-game conference winning streak, ending a remarkable eight-year run, with a win at South Medford in early January, and two weeks later, North Medford beat its crosstown rival for the first time since 2010.
Sheldon and North Medford finished as co-SWC champions and both advanced to the Class 6A state tournament final site, where they each went 0-2 to narrowly miss out on a trophy.
South Medford, meanwhile, a squad made up of seven freshmen, one sophomore and one junior — possibly the youngest varsity roster in 6A history — finished a game behind the co-champs for third place. It was a disappointment by their own high standards, but even as the Panthers’ eight-peat hopes fizzled, they continued to improve and mature. That process continued through summer ball and later through South’s challenging preseason schedule, and now the still-young but talented Panthers, who return all five starters plus their top two reserves, enter the SWC season as the coaches’ clear favorite to reclaim the league crown.
South Medford garnered five first-place votes to secure the top spot in the preseason coaches’ poll, with Sheldon coming in second, Grants Pass third and North Medford fourth. South Eugene and Roseburg round out the rankings for a league which dropped to six teams from seven after Willamette downshifted to the 5A Midwestern League.
South Medford head coach Tom Cole, entering his 14th year, says his team grew up while taking its lumps last season, noting the Panthers’ grueling season-ending loss at Benson in the second round of the playoffs.
On a day memorable for all the wrong reasons, South star guard and last year’s co-SWC player of the year, Ula Chamberlin, had a tooth knocked out as the Panthers let a double-digit lead slip away.
“It really rattled us and it rattled (Chamberlin),” Cole said of the injury. “I think it was one of those situations where we did not possess the kind of chemistry and maturity to overcome that. You can’t fabricate certain experiences that are about building character and identity, and I think those kinds of challenges last year, while frustrating and hard to accept sometimes, were a reflection of youth. But there were always glimpses of what the future could be.”
Chamberlin, who has committed to Weber State University, returns as the Panthers’ lone senior and, along with junior guard Bella Pedrojetti, also a first-team all-SWC selection last season, is one of only two upperclassmen on the roster.
Chamberlin led the SWC in scoring at 18.5 points per game overall and 20.4 in league action, and also averaged 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 2.2 assists overall. Pedrojetti averaged 13.2 points in conference games.
Cole said that much like last season, the Panthers will look to their most experienced players for points, but that unlike last season, Chamberlin and Pedrojetti will not be the only options when the team finds itself in a must-score situation. Sophomore guard Toni Coleman scored 21 points in an early-season game, and sophomore forward Kaili Chamberlin has scored 18. Also back are sophomores Shakia Teague-Perry, Emma Schmerbach and Laini Dahlin.
“I think we’ve got some kids who have improved significantly enough to give us some diversity in how we score,” Cole said. “Last year, everybody knew that it came down to Ula and Bella and if either one of those two didn’t have a good game, we really struggled to beat good teams.”
Defensively, South Medford will continue to be South Medford — that is, the Panthers will apply full-court pressure often, and against opponents that can’t handle it, that pressure will lead directly to steals and fastbreak layups.
The Panthers’ success in the pressure game can often be measured by their offensive production, and to that end Cole was encouraged by their start: South Medford averaged 76.2 points per game in its first four games. He’d still like to see better communication on defense, but that will come with experience, he said.
“I think this team has the potential, with experience, to be special,” he said. “That freshman class last year has as good of a chance as any class that came before them to do great things. But we also have to realize, too, that just as we’ve improved, other teams in the conference have also improved. This might be the best Grants Pass team I’ve seen in 10 years, and Sheldon is always going to be a juggernaut.”
North Medford returns starters Jane Ersepke, a junior guard, and Talia Baker, a senior wing/post, off a team that went 10-2 in the SWC to capture its first league title in 10 years.
Ersepke was a second-team all-league selection and Baker received honorable mention for the Tornado, which is led by first-year coach Aaron Rayburn.
Rayburn, an assistant last season, loves the leadership his team gets from Ersepke and calls Baker the best defensive player he’s ever coached. But, he says, the guard heavy team will have to grow up fast.
Junior wing Abby Christiansen steps into a bigger role after being the second player off the bench last season, and senior post Chloee Thurman will see plenty of action, but senior Ana Baker is expected to miss the season after injuring her knee over the summer, and the rest of the lineup includes a junior and four sophomores.
“There’s some talent there in the younger kids, but they’ve never played varsity basketball before,” Rayburn said. “We grew up a lot this summer from June to the end of July, and those kids got some good experience. But again, the regular season’s a lot different. We have a lot of people learning their roles on the team.”
The Tornado’s new-look offense reflects its big personnel changes. Last season, senior post Megan Fossen provided a go-to presence inside while averaging 15.1 points and 11 rebounds a game on her way to sharing the MVP award with Ula Chamberlin. This season, Rayburn noted, inside buckets will be tougher to come by, and the Tornado will have to work hard to generate scoring opportunities.
“I think our team and our program has always prided itself on our defense, and I think that’s going to be where we’re at right now,” Rayburn said. “We need to be a good defensive team and hopefully our defense will lead to some offense.”
The Cavers return four starters, including its two all-conference honorees from a year ago: senior guard Ayla Klingler (first team) and senior guard Grace Gaither (second team).
Tenth-year head coach Scott Wakefield expects his team to push the pace, but with Grants Pass’ tallest player topping out at 5-foot-8, scoring and defending in the paint could prove challenging. Against much taller Jesuit on Dec. 14, the Cavers struggled on offense and suffered their first loss after four wins, 40-25.
Also back for Grants Pass is senior guard Ahdra Klingler, junior forward Camdyn Bruner, senior guard Elizabeth Williams and senior forward Hailey Yount.
“This is a pretty good Grants Pass team,” Wakefield said, but we’ve got a tough league, man. It’s not easy, especially this year with our schedule being what it is. South (Medford), Sheldon and Grants Pass play each other three times, and I feel like we’ll be competitive this year. Does that mean that we’re going to beat those guys? That’s yet to be determined.”
The Irish return four starters, including first-team all-SWC picks Aly Mirabile, a junior guard, and Kami Walk, a senior forward. Also back for Sheldon are junior guard Makayla Scurlock and senior forward Emma Neuman.
Mirabile has switched to shooting guard to increase her scoring opportunities, a move that looked like a big success through the first month of the season, when she averaged about 18 points per game and the Irish won nine of their first 10 games, most in lopsided fashion.
Sheldon beat West Salem, Churchill, Hillsboro and Clackamas during one impressive four-game stretch in December, while also steamrolling Corvallis by 26 points and Roosevelt by 32.
“It’s a really fun group of kids,” Sheldon ninth-year coach Brian Brancato said. “It’s probably the combination of the most athletic team that we’ve been in years combined with the most unselfish. It’s been a great group in that way, and they’re playing for each other instead of with each other.”
The Axe returns one SWC honorable mention in junior guard Hannah Stein, along with senior forward Madison McGowan and senior wing Abbey Jost. Freshman guard Alia Harris and senior forward Jordan Lee are the other starters for a team that finished 2-10 in league last year.
South Eugene opened the season with four straight losses, but won three of its next four, including a 44-33 victory over Corvallis on Dec. 22.
The Axe will press opponents and play mostly man-to-man defense in an effort to create transition scoring opportunities.
“The playoffs are a reasonable goal for us,” South Eugene coach Don Brown said. “I think our league will slap us around a little bit, and hopefully when we go down, we’ll go down swinging.”
In what head coach Dane Tornell describes as a rebuilding year, Roseburg’s big three are senior Samie Bergmann, junior Rylee Russell and junior Katie Knudson.
Tornell is attempting to rebuild the program from the ground up, putting extra time into Roseburg’s youth programs. He’s excited about what that may mean for the team’s future, but knows the present could be rough, especially considering the strength of the SWC.
“We’re a lot more community oriented and youth focused,” he said. “My staff and I are working with girls as young as third grade almost every week, and we should have middle school representation at the state level, so we’re pretty excited for what we’ve got going on in our youth.”
As for this season, Tornell expects the Indians to be solid on defense despite a lack of size. In an effort to hang with the league’s elite, the Indians will attempt to play scrappy defense and get all five players involved in their modified flex offense.
“We actually are a very good defensive team,” Tornell said, “we just have problems putting the ball in the basket. We’re very small, but very fast and very aggressive.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.