This is South

The stories and people behind the undefeated Panthers’ unprecedented run
By Dan Jones

Mail Tribune
March 06, 2012

It’s the last vehicle here: A large, white 2005 Dodge Sprinter van in a dark, deserted parking lot at South Medford High last Friday. Nearby, a door at the recently built school pushes open. A sharply dressed man with slicked-back black hair exits into the night and toward the vehicle.

Tom Cole, a 40-year-old Missouri native, says goodbye to Amy Conroy, a woman holding an iPad with a picture of LeBron James as its wallpaper. Conroy, an assistant coach for the South Medford girls basketball team, tells Cole she’ll be at Kids Unlimited tomorrow before driving away.

Earlier that evening, Cole led his undefeated Panthers to an important win over Tualatin. Afterward, the head coach talked to the players, chatted with spectators, spent time with the parents and then told a school janitor who was interested in acquiring a Panther T-shirt that he had his back — and already knew his size.

Now Cole is climbing into the van, which is neither sleek nor sexy. It’s a machine built to transport around 10 people, a replacement for a 1999 Ford that he pushed until the wheels practically fell off.

“The kids ask me, ‘Why don’t you get a cool car?'” Cole says. “I’m past cool.”

Cole drives away. Later that night, he calls South Medford athletic director Dennis Murphy, who is also the head coach of the boys team here, and the two men talk about their games.

A new day is here. Cole’s phone rings. He might need to coach a youth team. His phone rings again, then again. He’s back in the van. He’s back to work.

This is South

How did Cole get here? How did the Panthers get here, a band of young women from Southern Oregon taking on Baltimore, taking on the California Bay Area, taking on New York City? South Medford owns a perfect 27-0 record and is three victories away from securing the program’s first state championship.

The Panthers, who are ranked nationally in USA Today and MaxPreps polls, average 79 points a night under the fifth-year head coach. They own the highest team GPA (3.59) among girls teams remaining in the Class 6A tournament. This past summer, they faced some of the nation’s best teams.

“In most cases they have a team that creates matchup issues in at least three spots every game,” says JT Thomas, head coach at rival Crater.

They are a unique bunch in many ways. Almost every player on the roster has known or played for Cole since they were very young. Cole moved to Southern Oregon in 1995 after being involved in Missouri Boys & Girls Clubs and, by 1998, had created Kids Unlimited, a youth enrichment center that has grown as quickly as the children who have benefited from its birth.

Along the way, he helped pioneer basketball leagues for children in grade school, coached seventh- and eighth-grade AAU programs, repaired damaged portable basketball hoops, had an outdoor basketball court constructed while Kids Unlimited’s indoor gym on Riverside Avenue was being built and given thousands of rides in his vans.

He also helped turn around South’s varsity program.

The Panthers went 6-18 during the 2005-06 season and 0-24 in 2006-07, when Melanie Wagoner, a former Jesuit High School and University of Alaska Fairbanks standout, resigned as the head coach late in the year with her team standing 0-18. After that, Cole was brought in.

“I think to get a program headed in the right direction you have to go down and establish a youth program, and that takes a lot of time and energy. Tom has surely done that,” says Murphy. “He has spent countless hours doing that.”

Or as Thomas puts it: “It takes an unusual group of people to make these things work, to make sure you have continuity coming into high school.”

In his five years at South, Cole has helped the program improve each season — Year 1, the Panthers did not make the state playoffs; Year 2, they qualified for the playoffs and took a road loss to Reynolds in the first round; Year 3, they advanced to the round of 16 before being eliminated by McNary; Year 4, they hosted two playoff games, won the Southern Oregon Hybrid and advanced to the state tournament in Portland.

And this year? “Our goal at the beginning of every season is to improve on the prior year,” Cole says.

South will lose three seniors after this season, including just one starter (the Stanford-bound Tess Picknell, a 6-foot-5 center). And behind the current players will be younger players who have, in one way or another, already been influenced by Cole. In all likelihood, there will be another Andee Ritter (Kaylene Ritter, a McLoughlin Middle School seventh grader), another Luisa Tago (Julissa Tago, a McLoughlin Middle School eighth grader) and another Lupita Vargas (Daniela Vargas, an Oak Grove Elementary fourth grader) playing for the Panthers’ varsity team.

And that list goes on. So could the success. B.G. Gould, a local who has been synonymous with Medford athletics for more than 40 years, has tracked the growth of the program.

“Tom has some good kids going through that system now,” Gould says.

The Players

These Panthers have athletic roots.

Ashley Bolston went to White City Elementary — her dad was to play at the University of Oregon but his SAT score didn’t meet the necessary standard. Andee Ritter went to Roosevelt Elementary School in Klamath Falls — her dad played professionally in Germany and Argentina and her mom at Oregon Tech.

Luisa Tago’s dad is a former college running back and her mom played soccer collegiately. Kylie Towry and Picknell both went to Jacksonville Elementary and Lupita Vargas to Oak Grove Elementary, and they’ve all got brothers, sisters, moms or dads who were sports stars.

And, eventually, each player found Cole.

“You go through cycles of kids,” Murphy says. “Sometimes there is a down cycle and things start to erode and oftentimes that is a reason people sometimes get out of coaching. You have to build up a lot of things.”

That included children, programs and even physical structures for Cole.

Kids Unlimited was originally located on Main Street, in a building that used to be a bank. It was staffed mostly by volunteers and was largely dependent on grants. In 2003, Cole formed a boys Rogue Valley YMCA team that went undefeated. The team was called Main 1 for the location of Kids Unlimited. They practiced on a portable basketball hoop on a fractured parking lot.

Around that time, Kids Unlimited participant Sheena Barkley — who would go on to become a standout hoops player at South — asked if there could be a girls team.

“That became for us a foundation,” Cole says.

The original girls squad with Barkley led to the youth center’s pass-to-play program that rewards enrollees with basketball opportunities for good grades. That system would end up making an enormous impact in the Rogue Valley, benefiting talented athletes like the Alvarez and Valdez sisters at St. Mary’s, Cascade Christian’s Jordan Martinez and North Medford’s Jocilynn Ellis. Its creation also marked the beginning of a strengthened feeder system for the Panthers and other local squads. Children could be taught the basics early so that they’d be equipped later.

By the time Cole became South’s seventh head varsity coach in 2007, he was well known around Jackson County.

“We knew Tom was a kid connector and at that point we weren’t getting as many kids out as we wanted,” Murphy says.

Cole guided the 2007-08 squad to an 11-13 overall finish a year after the program failed to produce a win. The Panthers ended a 26-game losing streak that dated back to the 2005-06 season with a 63-45 win over Mountain View. Kinzie Towry (one of Kylie Towry’s older sisters), Emily Salisbury and Alanna Stevens were the seniors on the squad.

Cole told the Mail Tribune then: “We want it to become expected to win.”

Meanwhile, his current roster was growing up.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade Panther AAU teams had won every tournament championship that they had vied for around the time of the Mountain View victory, and the seventh- and eighth-graders had yet to lose since the season started in October. Yaremi Mejia, Kylie Towry and Luisa Tago were McLoughlin seventh-graders under Cole’s direction.

For the first four years as the Panthers’ head varsity coach, Cole led South’s seventh- and eighth-grade fall squads.

“That first year and prior to that, there weren’t even teams representing South Medford at different grades,” Cole recalls. “We didn’t have fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teams. There weren’t enough kids in some instances. The biggest thing I felt like we needed to do a good job of was getting these kids the opportunity to play.

“We didn’t start off with a strong pool of adult volunteers that were willing to step in and pick up from zero.”

The 2008-09 season brought a one-win improvement as South went 12-14 overall with senior guard Brittney Newcomb, a McDonald’s All-American candidate, and Barkley. Leilani Morris and Picknell were highly touted freshmen on the team.

At the middle-school level that year, Mejia and Kylie Towry were mainstays on South’s AAU eighth-grade team, which finished among the best in the Northwest.

“We knew all that time that playing at that level, playing a hundred games a year, was part of the process to get those kids to a place when they transitioned into high school they had the experience and confidence and they had the passion,” Cole says.

In 2009-10, South finished 18-9 overall and 10-5 in the Southwest Conference.

“Both Kylie and Yaremi were starters as freshmen because we were still filtering in kids who were bringing in a different level of experience,” says Cole, who owns an 88-43 record at South.

The Panthers were 21-7 overall and 12-0 in league last season. They made the state tournament for the first time since 2002 and fell to eventual champion Jesuit 57-35 in the opening round (Jesuit also beat South 48-29 earlier that season). The underdog Panthers were experienced but young, with three sophomores (Kylie Towry, Mejia and Luisa Tago) and one junior (Picknell) among the starting five.

During the offseason, the Panthers AAU squad — which, unlike many other programs, was composed of just South players instead of a collection of city all-stars — played nationally recognized competition from California, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Colorado, Missouri and Washington.

In an elite tournament in Baltimore, South edged La Jolla Country Day (ranked ninth currently in a USA Today poll) in overtime.

 

And there would be more important victories to come.

The top-ranked Panthers returned as strong as ever this season, but entered fourth in the coaches 6A preseason poll. The team would end up ranked as high as third nationally and wrapped up the regular season No. 21 in the USA Today Super 25 computer poll.

South plays No. 3 Glencoe in the state quarterfinals at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Rose Garden in Portland. The winner will take on either No. 1 Central Catholic or No. 2 St. Mary’s Academy in the semifinals on Friday. The Panthers have defeated three of the remaining seven teams this season (Westview twice, Oregon City and St. Mary’s).

Their resume also included wins over Springfield, Jesuit and Clackamas.

The young women behind the success all have a story.

Family

Donald Bolston once saw his daughter, sophomore Ashley Bolston, easily dribble a basketball on a gravel-covered hill at Ashley’s mom’s parent’s home in White City when she was 5. It was then, he said, that he knew she had a special skill.

During the offseason, Bolston played for both the Panther AAU team and for one of the Portland-based Team Concept squads, traveling across the map and competing with or against Oregon prep standouts including Jordan Reynolds, Kaillee Johnson, Jaime Nared, Mercedes Russell and Picknell.

“She kicked and screamed at first playing with (the Team Concept squad) because she thought she wasn’t as good, but she was good if not better,” Donald Bolston says. “The biggest change from last year to this year is her confidence.”

The 6-0 Bolston has evolved drastically in one year, Cole and Donald Bolston agree. This season, she averaged 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks a night.

“Here she was, a meek, gangly, timid freshman who had athletic potential but really played kind of shy, kind of reserved and more fearful of making mistakes,” Cole says of Bolston’s freshman year. She moved to Medford her eighth-grade year. “In just a year, she has grown three inches, developed physically and has emerged as one of our most dominate players. And I still believe she is just beginning to become the player that she is going to be.”

Donald Bolston is from Georgia’s former capital, Milledgeville. He moved to Oregon to play basketball at the University of Oregon but instead played at Umpqua Community College and then went on to Oral Roberts University. A torn rotator cuff ended his career.

Ashley Bolston, who is Eagle Point senior guard Jonathan Bolston’s cousin, is the youngest of four children. Sometimes when she has visited Georgia (the family has made about six trips), she’s worn her hair in cornrows, “and they thought she was a boy,” Donald says with a laugh.

“Jonathan (who used to live in Georgia) would tell his friends his cousin was coming,” Bolston’s mother Tammy Hoefft says. “He wouldn’t tell them she was a girl until they beat them.”

Donald spent over $3,000 on Ashley’s offseason basketball expenses.

Andee Ritter and her family moved here about three years ago from Klamath Falls. Before attending McLoughlin Middle School, she would watch her older sister Jenni Ritter play at Klamath Union with her elbows on her knees and her hands resting on her chin.

“All the other kids would be running around playing,” Jenni says.

Andee Ritter was the most valuable player at the Nike Interstate Shootout this season, a freshman who has made an immediate impact.

“When I saw Andee play for the first time I said, ‘Wow, this kid is gonna be incredible,” Cole recalls. “She has not disappointed.”

The track standout, who competed on Cole’s eighth-grade team, is the daughter of a former professional basketball player and college basketball player. Paul Ritter, who once coached the Mazama girls squad, competed in Germany for three years and in Argentina for one.

Her mom Carol played at Oregon Tech.

Jenni Ritter became Klamath Union’s all-time leading scorer before going on to play at Portland State for two seasons and transferring to The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calf. She was South’s assistant last year (the job that Conroy now has) and is currently a chef.

The Ritter family owns a ranch in Bonanza with a blacktop basketball court. They have a portable hoop at their Medford home.

“She’s played a lot of ball in her life,” the 6-foot-4 Paul Ritter says of Andee.

Both Ritter and Bolston were part of the first fifth-grade AAU program under the umbrella of South Medford. Ted Curtius (South’s JV2 coach) and Jeff Roberson, a longtime Panther volunteer, coached the squad.

Junior guard Kylie Towry is the youngest of five siblings (four sisters and one brother) and is a former South ball girl. Marissa Towry, South’s junior varsity coach, played at UCC and Warner Pacific. Another sister, Kinzie Towry, played volleyball at Waldorf College.

Kylie Towry, who is 5-8, averaged 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and two steals per game this season.

Luisa Tago, a junior, is the daughter of a former college running back and soccer player. Pine Tago, who started half of his freshman season at Oregon Tech for Greg Howard, now works as a customer service agent at the airport. He is from American Samoa and is still fluent in Samoan. Agatha Tago (formerly Pena) is a native of Mexico and played soccer at OIT for two seasons. The two met in college. Now, they have three children: Luisa, Julissa and Lofa, a baby boy who is almost 3.

Luisa Tago speaks English and Spanish with ease. The versatile athlete, who has played on hoops teams since the sixth grade, dribbles with her right hand but shoots with her left hand “because she broke her right hand when she was 2 and had to adjust,” says Pine Tago, who’s also played semiprofessional football.

Pine Tago doesn’t boast or brag about Luisa’s basketball success and asks only that his children work hard in school. “She’s an all-A student. I brag about that the most,” he says.

Senior Lupita Vargas grew up in Kids Unlimited after-school programs. She is now a 4.0 GPA student who holds a leadership position at school, Cole says. Her mother and grandmother make tamales for the team to sell for fundraisers (remember how much Donald Bolston spent on Ashley?) and her sister Daniela “says I am her role model,” Vargas adds. When she found out she could play basketball as a very young girl, “I took the opportunity and here I am now,” she says.

At Oak Grove in 2005, Cole first laid eyes on Yaremi Mejia, a dark-haired girl whose family had moved to Los Angeles and whose English was minimal.

Now, Mejia is a junior and the starting point guard for the Panthers. She led the pep assembly before South’s second-round state playoff game last week with the confidence of a lion.

Senior Leilani Morris played in summer camps beginning in the fifth grade. Her mom is the one who supplies the Panthers with freshly baked cookies after contests. Others in the community give them cupcakes, candy and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Collectively, the young women make up a devoted group of players, Cole says.

“It’s really contagious,” he says.

And together, the Panthers are hard to stop.

Ritter (5-11) averaged 12 points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists a night, Mejia (5-7) 10 points, six assists, four rebounds and four steals and Picknell 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two assists.

Additionally, Tago (5-9) chipped in six points, five rebounds, 2.5 assists and two steals and Morris six points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

“Tess and Leilani certainly aren’t going to be running the point, but everyone else is interchangeable at any position,” says Cole, whose team averages 16.5 steals a night. “They can be bigger than the success or failure of any particular player or position.”

Says Thomas: “They can create some matchup problems. They can go with a big power lineup down low (with Picknell or Morris), they can go with length and speed combined (Bolston, Ritter, Tago, Towry) with the craftiness of Mejia out there. There are a lot of different situations that create matchup problems.”

Once the show at South ended last Friday night, the janitors began picking up.

“It’s nice to walk into a system that the girls have bought into,” says Conroy, who was a graduate assistant at Chico State and a coach at Yreka High and College of the Siskiyous.

Cole enters the picture. He’s smiling, sure, because his team won.

But he says he’s fulfilled because of how they won. They did it his way, which is really their way, which — it turns out — is pretty cool, even if it all concludes with Cole driving away in that van.

“We remind them each game that you don’t have to be anybody else other than yourself,” Cole says. “And that will be good enough.”

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com