Saxons return to glory: South Salem boys and girls prepare for tournament

Saxons return to glory: South Salem boys and girls prepare for tournament


Saxons return to glory: South Salem boys and girls prepare for tournament


For much of its history, South Salem High School has been known as a basketball school.

But it’s been a long time since the hoops teams from the school were among the state’s elite.

With the girls and boys teams from South Salem ending lengthy droughts by reaching this week’s OSAA Class 6A state tournament, the reputation may return.

“It definitely has been a focus for me to kind of get that hype back,” third-year boys head coach Tyler Allen said. “I’ve been here for seven years now and have saw the drop off from the 2004 run and the steady building to football being the dominant team sport here at South.

“We saw a little bit of the hype two years ago when we went to Grant and won in the playoffs. It was good to see by the league season the excitement rise. The community started seeing that as well.”

The community will get to travel to Portland’s Moda Center a lot this week.

South Salem’s girls make their first state tournament appearance since 1997 when the No. 8-ranked Saxons (22-5) play No. 1 South Medford (24-3) at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

South Salem’s boys are in the state tournament for the first time since 2004 – when the team won its most recent state championship – as the No. 3-ranked Saxons (24-3) play No. 5 Sunset (19-6) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

It’s been a drought for all of the Salem-Keizer public schools from the 6A state tournament.

The last time a Central Valley Conference team reached the state tournament was McKay boys and McNary girls in 2010.

Now South Salem is making its presence felt.

“It definitely is something that the people in our program, the people in our community are excited about,” said seventh-year South Salem girls coach Nick McWilliams.

“That’s kind of what we wanted to happen. I think when West Salem opened up, a lot of good athletes came from West Salem to play at South Salem and they started going to West Salem. It’s taken a few years to kind of build things back up. Tyler’s program has had steady progress and so have we.”

South Salem’s boys have a challenge they haven’t faced much when they play Sunset.

The Apollos are led by 6-foot-8 senior forward Tyler Gutierrez, who has signed to play at Concordia and averages 15.5 points per game.

Sunset’s lineup has a distinct size advantage against South Salem – the Saxons’ tallest contributor is 6-foot-3 junior Seth Erickson – and South Salem has rarely this season, especially in the Central Valley Conference season, seen opponents with much height.

Sunset also has several perimeter players in Taylor Harris and Jeff Bieber who have been regular contributors on the outside.

“We’ll need to send more than just our 6-3 defender on him, we’ll have to send another guy,” Allen said. “The big thing for us we’re going to need to work on is can we defend with 10 extra feet than we have all season.

“We actually started this process of improving our post defense early on in the season. We can’t just rely on one-on-one pressure on the post. At the same time we need to be smarter on the perimeter.”

The girls team gets a bigger challenge in top-ranked South Medford, which is making its fourth-consecutive state tournament appearance and hasn’t lost to an Oregon team this season.

The team features one of the state’s top players in Ashley Bolston (20.3 points per game) along with big scorers in Keyari Sleezer (12.0) and Julissa Tago (12.0) who will make things difficult for the Saxons.

“They also press and create a lot of turnovers with their defense,” McWilliams said. “We’re going to have to handle their pressure and slow down their key players.”

South Salem’s girls, through the decade and a half of missing out on the state tournament, were consistently in the state playoffs, but always came up short until now.

“I think that we’ve got kids that have been in the program, varsity program for three and four years now – thinking of our seniors Holly Moorman, Katie Donovan and Naomi Wasser, they were swing players when they were freshmen and Jenessa Bodine joined us when she was a sophomore – and then every year we’ve had a real high quality player or two,” McWilliams said.

“When you put all of those ingredients together, you put in some really talented players and some players who have not only put in time, but have bought into what we’re doing, we were finally able to get over that hump.

McWilliams has coached a number of teams to state tournaments, most recently in 2006 when he guided Central’s boys to a third-place finish at the Class 3A state tournament.

Former South Salem head coach Mike Stortz has been an assistant for the girls with McWilliams, and was the head coach of the time the last time it made the state tournament.

“There’s no question, some things work, some things don’t,” said McWilliams, who coached Santiam Christian’s boys to the Class B state championship in 1984. “You put aside the ones that don’t and pull on the ones that do.

“Especially this year, we’re going to enjoy it and hopefully next year we have an even better shot. I don’t know if I have any secrets on what’s the best things to do.”

There hasn’t been much time for South Salem to enjoy the success, be it the league championships, the league tournament championships, the playoff wins or the all-league honors.

That will come later.

“We had that moment in the locker room after the,” playoff game against Thurston, Allen said. “I’m sure the kids are in the buzz. I had to make phone calls that night, what (film) can we get on them. I want to make sure the kids can enjoy it.

“We want to compete there, we want to prove that we belong.”, (503) 399-6701 or follow at


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