Southridge clips Century, wins first Metro League crown
The gauntlet was thrown down early, in the aftermath of a humbling playoff defeat to Beaverton and as spring turned to summer.
The Southridge boys basketball wanted to become the first team in school history to win a Metro League title — period. They had the means to do it in terms of personnel, a potent blend of super-skilled inside talents such as Filip Fullerton and outside gunslingers like Brock Henry, as well as a perceptive coaching staff that would put its players in position to win night and night out.
Perhaps what's most refreshing about the Skyhawks is their transparency about their cardinal goal. From head coach Phil Vesel all the way down through their student managerial staff, the message was the same: Metro League title or bust. The Class 6A state tournament and all the promise that comes with it was secondary.
The players themselves never shied away from the weight of expectation, never crumbled under the burden of being picked by basically every coach in the conference to run away with the league crown.
In a 21-4 regular season that had a bump or two along the way and a litany of difficult on-court tasks to navigate ranging from injury to illness to a blown 18-point lead to Jesuit, Southridge never lost sight of the goal it set out for itself almost a year ago. When times got tough, the Skyhawks stayed united, not once splintering if adversity ever cropped up.
And when the moment came to win the Metro crown that was rightfully theirs outright, Southridge again met it with mettle and togetherness. Getting quality offensive contributions from all their main sources and timely chip-ins from the bench, the Skyhawks beat Century 72-62 on Feb. 22 at Century High to clinch their first Metro title in school history and clinch the No. 3 in the 6A bracket.
"This is what we worked for all summer, what we worked for all season, so it means a lot to get this," Southridge senior point guard Connor Fajardo said. "It was a challenge for sure. We had a target on our back the whole season, especially being at the top of the rankings and all that. But, it was a challenge we wanted. It was a challenge that we accepted at the beginning of the year and said 'Bring it on, let's compete for a Metro League title, let's compete for a state championship and do what's never been done in Southridge history.' We accomplished one goal tonight. Now we just have to compete, get better every day in practice and work for that next goal of winning a state championship and raising another banner."
Southridge, a school still relatively in its infancy compared to some of their Metro counterparts, relished a wealth of league titles across their athletic programs since opening in the early aughts —except for boys' basketball. The Skyhawks, while sporting loaded squads that finished as high as fourth at the state tournament, simply ran into conference juggernauts like the Khyan Ramer-led Jesuit squads that once ruled Metro. But now, inside The Cage, high above the hardwood, on the red, black and Vegas gold tapestry hanging in the rafters, the '17-18 squad will have its name on the long list of Skyhawk all-time, all-sports league champs.
"That's something special," Fajardo said with a smile. "When we come back in a couple of years, look up and see that banner you can say 'We did that, that was ours. We left a legacy.' It's a grind for sure. It's a lot of extra hours. But it's what basketball is about."
Compared to Southridge's wild, capacity crowd net-cutting ceremony last week against Beaverton when the Skyhawks clinched a share of Metro, the outright sealing celebration against Century was rather subdued. With school canceled the two days prior to the regular season finale due to snow, Southridge couldn't officially practice together as a team and was sent scrambling to local gyms hoping to get a sweat going, to get shots up. The rust reared itself early on as Southridge came out sluggish in the first quarter and struggled to jettison the Jags in the fourth despite being up by as much as 20.
"We wanted to compete better, play better than we did," Fajardo said. "We felt like we made excuses for the snow days to how we played, but we just have to drop tonight and work hard in practice these next couple of days before playoffs."
Still, there were plenty of peeks into why Southridge has been so successful this season.
Tied 11-11 in the first quarter Fullerton bodied a Jag big man under the rim for an offensive board and subsequent and-one. Fajardo flashed his shortstop-quick hands with a steal in the passing lane and fast-break layup. Fullerton dove on the floor for a loose ball and was rewarded with a deep-paint touch on the other end where he dropped in a sweet right-handed jump hook. And after a Skyhawk steal, Fullerton tipped an offensive board to himself, kept the ball high and finished. The swift 9-0, initiated by hyperactive hands, long wingspans and aggressive traps on defense, sent Southridge into the first quarter break with 20-11 lead.
The second quarter showcased Henry's outside shooting prowess as the junior guard scored 11 points, nine of which came from three-point land. Bo Quinlan, the silky smooth transfer from Life Christian with bounce and handles, and Zach Galvin, the long, rangy, big-handed defensive menace, handled the playmaking duties on both ends of the floor, facilitating the offense, triggering fast breaks with steals on defense. Fajardo and Ben Pak came off the bench and provided even more quality backcourt play. Bradley Bickler was again a beast inside, blocking shots, eating up offensive and defensive rebounds. Fullerton's game keeps adding new elements to it, his confidence to step outside and shoot from deep is growing, but he's still set on using his size inside and using his array of jump hooks and old school post moves underneath. Fullerton finished with a game-high 30 points, Henry added 16, Quinlan had 10 and Bickler tacked on 8.
Individually there were stars all around, but above all the ball always found the open man and whoever had the best matchup was unselfishly deployed on offense. Defensively, Southridge was on a string, anchored by Fullerton and Bickler who challenged, contested and blocked shots inside. Even in the moments when Century made strides and perhaps Southridge went through the motions, their motives were all geared toward helping their teammates, getting the most out of each other.
"We're just all family, honestly," Fajardo said. "There isn't a single person on this team that we dislike. We're a band of brothers and that's how we approach every practice, every game. We love each other to death. We compete for each other, make each other better. I think it's rare when you find that in high school. There's a lot of drama going around, stuff like that. But this group of guys is special for sure."
Southridge's first-round opponent hasn't been set yet, though the Skyhawks will host whoever they play on Wednesday night. With the 6A power rankings set, Southridge sits at No. 3 with a potential quarterfinal date against Lake Oswego and a possible semifinal square-off with Grant. The Skyhawks are a sneaky state title game contender with their ability to beat teams in a myriad of ways. Southridge can get hot from the outside in a hurry, as evidenced by their first quarter showing against Oak Hill at the Les Schwab Invitational. Quinlan, Henry and Galvin are capable of putting together extended shooting sprees from deep. As a team, Southridge can undo foes with 10 or more threes in a given game. Fullerton is a mismatch inside, but the fact he can invert his skill set and take fellow bigs out on the perimeter where they're far less comfortable is an instrumental x-factor for Southridge's state title hopes. The last time the state got a good look at Southridge was at the LSI when Fullerton missed the tourney with mono. The rest of the 6A field hasn't seen Southridge at full strength yet, at least in person. Vesel and his staff have flexible defensive schemes to throw at the state's best and game plan for opponents in a next level sort of way.
There's a lot to like about Southridge and their postseason ambition, but the Skyhawks seem settled on staying on task and sticking to the script.
"We're clicking, but we have to continue to get better in practice," Fajardo said. "That's what it's about. You can always get better. The sky is the limit, so if you continue to have the mindset and continue to get better in practice, anything is possible."