By Kris Henry

Mail Tribune

Brutal. No wait, unbelievably brutal.

Upon looking at this season’s schedule for the defending Class 6A state champion South Medford girls basketball team, only a few words can be used to accurately describe it. “Brutal” seems the most appropriate since “challenging” simply doesn’t do it justice.

Even Panthers head coach Tom Cole used that word to discuss a schedule that includes only eight home dates and four road trips ranging from Portland to Stockton, Calif., to Washington, D.C.

“It will be a challenge because we’re never at home and always on the road in someone else’s backyard,” Cole said Monday, “but it’s also part of developing character and being tougher. Win or lose, this year’s schedule is about preparing us to be better at the end.”

Cole used a similar strategy last season with a schedule that included most of the state’s top teams and it paid off as the battle-tested Panthers swept through the state tournament for their first title in a historic 30-0 season.

Even last year’s schedule, however, has nothing on what Cole has in store for his girls this time around. Instead of just competing on a level with the state’s best, the Panthers will test their mettle on a national scale, highlighted by an appearance in the National Title IX Holiday Invitational Conference & Classic Dec. 26-28 in Washington, D.C. Teams from Maryland, Alabama, New York, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina will be on hand with the Oregon squad and a few D.C.-area programs.

“Out of 16 teams playing in that, I think 10 will be in the national rankings, so we’ll see some of the best teams in America,” said Cole. “There will be no games that aren’t going to be against high-caliber competition.”

And that, essentially, is all Cole wants for his team, which returns senior starters Yaremi Mejia, Kylie Towry and Luisa Tago and underclassman standouts Ashley Bolston (junior) and Andee Ritter (sophomore). Mejia and Towry were each second-team all-state selections last season, while Bolston and Ritter provided some of the biggest buzz at the state tourney for their full-court abilities.

The team also gets a boost from varsity reserve Keyari Sleezer (sophomore) and up-and-coming freshman talents Julissa Tago and Jasmine Falls and sophomore Mackenzie Cox.

“Coming off a season like we had last year, I think we’re at that place where we want to constantly challenge ourselves to be better and not really worry about our record but whether we’re playing teams that are going to make us better for March,” said the coach. “I think looking at the schedule and how we set it up, we’ve put ourselves in position to play the very best in Oregon, Washington, California and the country.”

One thing Cole and the Panthers are striving not to do is to compare this season to last season. Last year, they had 6-foot-5 standout Tess Picknell, who is now playing at Stanford. As such, this year’s team expects to play a vastly different style, and it’s extremely unlikely it can repeat what happened over the 2011-12 campaign.

“When you talk about 30-0, I’ve never had it happen in a lifetime, even for a team I’ve rooted for, forget playing or coaching,” Cole said. “Those things don’t come along very often in any form. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime memory and we’re really fortunate it happened the way it did, but that was last season.”

This season begins Thursday, when South Medford squares off against Cleveland High of Washington to open the Nike Northwest Invitational at Southridge High. Cole said Cleveland finished third in Washington last year and is an early season No. 1 in state projections.

Other teams the Panthers might face include Coeur d’Alene, a perennial title favorite in Idaho, as well as Oregon preseason No. 1 Central Catholic and its early signees Jordan Reynolds (Tennessee) and Kailee Johnson (Stanford), No. 4 Westview (last year’s state runner-up with star Jaime Nared) and No. 8 Southridge.

“It’s a really solid field of teams,” said Cole, whose team is the preseason No. 2 in the 6A coaches poll. “There’s going to be some really good competition these first few days of the season.”

One week later, the Panthers will return to the Portland area for the St. Mary’s Academy tournament, where they will face the seventh-ranked tournament host, which returns several key players from last year’s 6A semifinal run. The other matchup in the two-day event will be Westview and Glencoe, which South beat to open last year’s state tournament.

The Panthers will finally play at home on Dec. 14 and welcome the nation’s top recruit in Springfield’s Mercedes Russell, who helped lead her team to the 5A title one year ago and has signed with Tennessee. If you’re only going to have one preseason game at home, you might as well make it a big one.

“It will be good for girls basketball, I think, to have that caliber of talent playing under one roof,” said Cole. “And some of those kids belong to us, too, so I think it will be a fun game.”

South Medford then leaves Christmas day for Washington, D.C., and will open Southern Oregon Hybrid play on Jan. 4 at home against Roseburg. Six of the Panthers’ eight home games are against SOH teams, with Springfield and Eagle Point serving as the others.

A couple weeks into the SOH slate, the Panthers will travel to Stockton, Calif., for the MLK Showcase and square off against two of California’s top programs in St. Mary’s of Berkeley and St. Mary’s of Stockton.

Cole said the unique schedule will offer his team the opportunity to play different brands of basketball as it takes on teams from the East Coast, which utilize a shot clock, and teams from California, where a third referee and a shot clock are added to the equation.

As ambitious as Cole is, mind you, some of the facets to this schedule were a little out of his control.

“The truth is we would’ve never been looking at these opportunities had we not been given the sort of invitations that came with our success last year,” said Cole. “This is a challenge but it’s also a reward for accomplishing what they did last year. The challenge is for them to take this opportunity and use it for something that’s worthwhile again in March.”

Further, Portland-area teams aren’t inclined to travel south for the winter, making it much more difficult to schedule home contests against top-tier programs.

“I think the hard part for all of us is the Portland teams look at this area like a two-day journey,” said Cole. “That climate hasn’t shifted enough, even after our success last season, and it’s still very difficult to get teams to come play down here on our court. In order to play teams that are preseason high-caliber teams, us as well as other teams in our conference like Crater and North Medford, we have to travel. We’re disappointed we’re not playing more home games but it’s just kind of the nature of what has to happen.”

Allowing him to make the decision to go forward with such an ambitious workload, however, is a pretty talented cast of Panthers who aren’t ones to shy away from competition.

“We know things are different because we lost some significant parts from last year, the biggest being the biggest (in Picknell),” said Cole, “but I also know these kids can compete. They’ve played together long enough and I think every coach believes each year the kids only get better.”

“We will be running a different style of play this year so it’ll be different but I still think that I like the way these kids play basketball,” he added. “They have a high skill-set and they’ll compete with anyone.”

That said, coming out of this year’s schedule without at least one loss would be quite a feat — and that’s certainly the Panthers’ goal — but one wonders if South Medford is playing with fire when it comes to the ever-important power rankings that help determine playoff seeding come February and March.

“It is a risk that we could eventually slip in those power ranking polls, but at the end of the season the main thing is that we’re ready for all that comes with that run,” said Cole, whose undefeated team still opened last year’s playoffs with a No. 2 ranking behind an Oregon City team it had already beaten. “While we had a great year last year and unbelievable season, I don’t pretend that losing isn’t part of the equation that gets you better.

“The reality is you still have to win ballgames. If we went out to schedule just to get wins, I don’t know if you’re ready to face adversity if it comes for the first time in the playoffs and whether you can still win when it comes against the good teams.”

So if it’s a true measuring stick that Cole wants and a chance to mold this year’s version of the Panthers by putting them under constant pressure, he’s certainly laid the foundation with the 2012-13 schedule. How it all pans out will be determined at a later date.

“Our record may or may not indicate really what we’re capable of when all’s said and done,” said Cole. “But we wouldn’t have taken it on if we didn’t want the challenge.”

And you have to admit, there’s some honor in undertaking such a quest.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488,, or