'Battle’ expected for SWC boys title this season
A year ago, the Southwest Conference was one of three Class 6A leagues to have its boys basketball champion run the table and finish league play undefeated.
Based on how things have shaped up the first month of the 2022-23 season, that might not necessarily be the case again.
“It’s definitely going to be an interesting league,” said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn, whose Black Tornado finished second behind rival South Medford last season. “I don’t think anybody should probably run the table, so if you lose one or two you should probably still be in the mix for that league title.”
The two teams that finished in the top two spots last season, South Medford and North Medford, are a combined 9-14 to start the year.
The two teams that account for two of the best records during the first five weeks of the season, Grants Pass and Roseburg, finished third and fourth, respectively, last year. They’re also seventh and eighth, respectively, in the 6A state power rankings.
While no team from the SWC currently sits in the top 10 of the 6A coaches’ poll, there is a common line of thinking that one or even two losses won’t see your league title hopes suddenly dashed.
“It’s going to be a battle,” said South Medford head coach James Wightman. “I think that the team that wins the league is going to have two or three losses. I can see a 9-3 winning league.”
A team that both Plankenhorn and Wightman pinpointed as one to watch out for this season as SWC play begins: Grants Pass.
The Cavemen, under the direction of second-year head coach Joel Jessee, enter their league opener with a 9-3 record and have very much gotten the attention of those around the SWC.
Grants Pass opens SWC play at North Medford (2-9) on Tuesday night, while South Medford (7-5) is also at home to begin league play when it hosts Roseburg (10-2), a team Wightman describes as one that’s “not afraid to chunk it from the cheap seats.”
“Grants Pass has a really solid basketball team,” said Plankenhorn, “they have nice pieces, play really good defense and then execute their stuff, so they’re going to be a chore.”
Grants Pass, which has already surpassed its win total from a year ago (8), has not won a league title since sharing the honors in the 2004-05 season.
“I feel like this is our year to do that,” Jessee said of potentially winning the SWC. “That’s our team goal and the boys have bought in on it. We want to win a championship and be able to host a first-round playoff game. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
South Medford, which went 10-0 in the SWC a year ago, has two of the league’s best players in sophomore wing Boden Howell and junior point guard Jackson Weiland — now in his third year as a starter — back from the Panthers’ 25-3 team that finished fourth at state a year ago.
The Panthers, however, have had their ups and downs so far this season as Howell and Weiland step into bigger roles.
“We really could be 3-8, but we could also be 8-3,” Wightman said prior to Saturday’s win in Portland. “We’re 6-5, it’s a winning record with these guys and we’ll take it so far, but you still want to try and accomplish some of your goals. It is what it is and we’re just going to keep on working.”
Entering Saturday’s win over Ida B. Wells, the 6-foot-4 Howell was averaging 20 points per game this season. Weiland isn’t too far behind at 19.3 points per game, while also leading the Panthers with just over three assists a game.
Three seniors — Deacon Edgar, Dylan Espinosa and Cameron Sewell — have stepped into starting roles this season, while senior Ty Henry, sophomore Tobias Akpan and junior Colby Shuldberg are the Panthers’ main three options off the bench.
“The big thing with us is trust, and our two guys have to trust the other guys because we can’t win games going 2-on-5 — it just can’t happen,” said Wightman. “That’s been a thing we’ve talked about is trusting each other and other guys have to make plays. Bode and Jackson are averaging 40 points, that’s good, but we talk about scoring in the 60s, so where are we going to get the other 20 points from? We’ve been working on things in practice and they’re starting to see things.”
North Medford, meanwhile, entered the season with the task of having to replace all four of its top scorers and get a very inexperienced roster up to speed quickly.
The Black Tornado snapped its three-game losing skid Friday with a win over Lakeridge and heads into its SWC opener with some momentum despite a 2-9 record.
Plankenhorn welcomed back senior guard Antonio Orozco in Friday’s win after eligibility issues forced him to miss the first 10 games of the season.
Plankenhorn describes Orozco — who had six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in his season debut — as one of North’s best defenders as well as “probably our best playmaker and option for scoring.”
“Giving us another playmaker on the floor will help because the assist-to-turnover ratio has been killing us,” Plankenhorn said of the 6-foot-2 Orozco. “A guy that can get some baskets on his own but can get other guys baskets will help that ratio and hopefully get us a few more assists and eliminate some turnovers. I really think that’s what he’s going to bring.”
Junior wing Houston Klug leads the Tornado in scoring (12.9 ppg), while junior Andrew Plankenhorn and senior Davis Carr have also provided some long-distance shooting for North.
“The record doesn’t show the whole story,” said coach Plankenhorn. “We’re close, but we’re still a long way away from playing at the level that we want. We’re playing super hard and we have great kids, so we’re just keeping the process going and hoping that things are going to flip soon.
Jessee doesn’t hesitate when describing where his team’s success begins.
The Cavemen are allowing just over 43 points per game, with their strong defensive mindset coming to the forefront through their first 12 games.
“We’re the No. 1 team in Oregon in terms of points allowed per game and that’s kinda what we are,” he said. “We’re a defensive team, we have to play defense and that’s where all of our boys have bought in and hung their hat on when it comes to the defensive side. That’s been a lot of our success and what it’s been built on.”
Sophomore forward Peyton Bruner (6-3) and senior forward Mason Bennett (6-4) give the Cavemen some length and have led the way offensively, while senior forward Cade Brandes helps set the tone on the defensive end of the floor.
“A lot of our success comes down to how he plays on defense,” Jessee said of Brandes.“I don’t think we’re the best offensive team in our league, but I know for a fact that we’re the best defensive team and that’s what we’ll hang our hat on.”
COACH: Scott Plankenhorn (17th year)
LAST YEAR: 21-4, 8-2 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 2-9
COACH: James Wightman (seventh year)
LAST YEAR: 25-3, 10-0 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 7-5
COACH: Joel Jessee (second year)
LAST YEAR: 8-14, 4-6 SWC
CURRENT RECORD: 9-3
2021-22 — South Medford (10-0)
2020-21 — South Medford (Spring Tournament)
2019-20 — South Eugene (9-1)
2018-19 — North Medford (7-3), Sheldon (7-3), South Eugene (7-3)
2017-18 — North Medford (10-2)
2016-17 — North Medford (11-1)
2015-16 — South Medford (13-1)
2014-15 — South Eugene (12-2)
6A Southern Oregon Hybrid
2013-14 — South Medford (11-1)
2012-13 — South Medford (10-2)
2011-12 — South Medford (11-1)
2010-11 — South Medford (9-3) and Roseburg (9-3)
2009-10 — South Eugene (12-3)
2008-09 — South Medford (11-4) and Sheldon (11-4)
2007-08 — South Medford (13-2)
2006-07 — South Medford (13-2) and Sheldon (13-2)
Southern Oregon Conference
2005-06 — South Medford (14-0)
2004-05 — South Medford (12-2), Grants Pass (12-2), Roseburg (12-2)
2003-04 — South Medford (14-0)
2002-03 — South Medford (13-1)
2001-02 — South Medford (14-0)
2000-01 — Roseburg (13-1)
1999-2000 — Grants Pass (11-3) and Roseburg (11-3)
1998-99 — North Medford (12-2)
1997-98 — South Medford (16-0)
1996-97 — South Medford (15-1)
1995-96 — South Medford (15-1)
1994-95 — Roseburg (15-1)
1993-94 — South Medford (16-0)
1992-93 — North Medford
1991-92 — North Medford
1990-91 — South Medford
1989-90 — Crater
1988-89 — North Medford
1987-88 — Ashland
1986-87 — South Medford
1985-86 — Ashland (16-0)
1984-85 — Ashland (15-1)
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.