South Medford's Taylor Young, who scored 23 points against Willamette, is averaging 17.0 points. (Photo by Jon Olson)
South Medford's Taylor Young, who scored 23 points against Willamette, is averaging 17.0 points. (Photo by Jon Olson)

South Medford spent the first month of the girls basketball season trying to get its feet on the ground.

The Panthers not only were fitting into new roles from last season -- and adjusting to life without star guard Donovan Hunter, now at Oregon State – but they played their first 12 games on the road.

“We really lived out of a suitcase,” coach Tom Cole said.

As the 6A playoffs approach, though, No. 2 South Medford is gelling nicely. The Panthers rolled past No. 4 Willamette 60-48 on the road Friday to run their winning streak to 15. They clinched at least a share of their fifth consecutive Southwest Conference title, and can claim it outright by winning one of their last two games.

“The goal is to close it out and try to get a fifth undefeated conference championship,” said Cole, whose team won its 12th conference title in the last 14 seasons.

Cole said South Medford was like a “deer in the headlights” when it opened the season with a 67-48 loss at top-ranked and reigning state champion Clackamas in a rematch of last year's 6A final. And the Panthers were slowed by injury and illness when they fell to No. 3 Benson 68-58 in the final of the Capitol City Classic on Dec. 20.

But they have been dominant during their winning streak, which also included a 45-32 home win over Willamette.

“I think those losses helped us,” Cole said. “They gave us a real perspective of what we needed to work on. We're a completely different team than earlier in the year.”

The road trips toughened the Panthers, who have played 18 of their 22 games away from home this season.

“Even though there were times in December where I felt exhausted, and I'm sure the kids felt the same way, we all look back on it and think it was the right thing to do,” Cole said. “I think that really helped us. You have to learn to compete in uncomfortable situations.”

Sophomore guard Taylor Young, one of two returning startes, is averaging a team-high 17.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.0 steals per game. She is shooting 54 percent from the field, including 41 percent on three-pointers.

Young had 23 points and five steals against Willamette, showing an improved ability to attack the basket and finish in traffic.

“She continues to grow in her abilities and her poise,” Cole said. “As she's gotten older, the game has started to slow down more. She was spectacular on Friday night.”

Junior guard Sara Schmerbach, the other returning starter, is putting up 13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 steals. The Panthers also are getting consistent play from senior forward Kim Ceron-Romero (11.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) and 6-foot-3 sophomore center Mayen Akpan (6.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals).

Akpan had 33 rebounds in the two wins over Willamette.

“She's become a physical presence that we really needed,” Cole said. “She brings a dimension to our team that we haven't had in years.”

The Panthers, who won an unofficial 6A title in the COVID-shortened season in 2021 and lost in the semifinals in 2022 and the final last year, were an unknown quantity heading into the season. At this point, they are surpassing expectations.

“Few people across the state, including within our own conference, thought that South Medford would have the season they’ve had considering the number and kind of impact kids we lost last year,” Cole said. “It’s been rewarding to watch them raise the expectations and forge their own identity.”

Amity flexes

No. 2 Amity claimed the top seed in the 3A PacWest Conference with a convincing 71-39 win over No. 6 Jefferson in a league playoff game Saturday at Sprague High School.

The teams shared the PacWest title by splitting two games in conference play, both winning close games at home, Jefferson 52-48 on Jan. 19 and Amity 54-48 on Feb. 9. In the third meeting, however, the Warriors were dominant.

Sophomore post Kylie Wilson and sophomore guard Eliza Nisley scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, for Amity (21-3), which pulled away after leading 18-14 in the second quarter.

“Honestly, everything just clicked for us,” Amity sophomore guard Alyssa McMullen said. “Everything we’ve been working on, little bits and pieces from the season, just came together.

“It is going to give us a lot of confidence in what we can do and that we can do even do better than we did. We’ve really improved these past few games.”

Junior guard Gretchen Orton led Jefferson with 21 points.

“This next week will be big because we get to show that we can make it to state,” Orton said. “We've got to think of it as a whole new season. Coming out hard, we got to be on our A-game. We've got to come out fast and last the entire game.”

The ninth-seeded Lions (20-3) play at No. 8 Westside Christian (19-5) on Saturday for a berth in the eight-team state tournament. Third-seeded Amity can earn a spot in the tournament Saturday at home by beating the winner of Wednesday's playoff game between Horizon Christian (14-10) and Riverdale'Riverside (14-10).

-- Jeremy McDonald contributed to this report

Skyline drama

No. 3 Klamath Union needed some heroics from senior guard Dianara Pena to beat No. 3 Henley on Friday and pull into a first-place tie in the 4A Skyline Conference.

Pena rattled in a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the host Pelicans (15-2, 6-1) a 65-63 win over the Hornets (19-2, 6-1) in the cross-town rivalry game. Pena's winning basket came after Henley took a 63-62 lead with seven seconds left on a layup by senior guard Annie Campos.

Klamath Union avenged a 57-36 loss at reigning conference champion Henley on Jan. 30. The teams finish their league schedules Tuesday with home games, Klamath Union against Hidden Valley (6-17, 2-5) and Henley against Phoenix (13-9, 4-3).

Senior post Keely Hall led Klamath Union with 19 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. Senior guard Kshalee Thomas had 18 points and Pena added 12 points, six rebounds and four assists.

Campos had 28 points, 11 rebounds, seven steals and five assists for Henley.