Newly minted Oregon champions, girls basketball players for South Medford High School also are champions for their community’s youth.

The Lady Panthers — fresh from their OSAA 6A state tournament victory March 9 — headlined a March 13 special assembly at Kids Unlimited Academy. Students cheered their congratulations, presented the team with hand-painted banners and posed for photos with their heroes. Coach and KU CEO Tom Cole narrated his team’s path to success.

“They care about doing well in the classroom; they want to be respectful to teachers — that’s what being a champion is really about.

“They did it on the biggest stage in Oregon,” Cole said. “They proved everyone wrong because they believed in themselves.”

Lady Panthers forward Kim Ceron-Romero poses with KUA students.

KUA public charter school, for many on the varsity basketball squad, is akin to a home court. After her own SMHS classes, Lady Panthers forward Kim Ceron-Romero works part time at KUA’s afterschool programs. The senior known as “Coach Kim” began volunteering with Kids Unlimited to give back to the nonprofit that shaped much of her childhood.

“I just felt like I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself,” said Ceron-Romero.

An early commit for California’s Menlo College, Ceron-Romero is one of more than 30 Lady Panthers in the past 15 years to earn college basketball scholarships. A January Oregonian article detailed her story.

“She has persevered through some difficult challenges including losing her mother to cancer when she was younger,” said Cole. “She’s a champion for our kids … Watching her shine, through injury and adversity, was one of the proudest moments as a coach I have shared in 17 years.”

Cole led the Lady Panthers to 6A state titles in 2012 and 2021. They were tournament runners-up in 2013, 2014 and 2023.
Many members of these teams grew up in KU’s Rotary Pass to Play basketball league and Cole’s Lady Panthers Hoops Club, serving as volunteer coaches and mentors for the next generation of hoopsters. KUA students and participants at KU afterschool programs — about 1,000 kids total — arguably are the biggest Lady Panthers fans.

“In the crowd were some of our KUA students seeing (Kim) triumph as one they, too, could believe in,” said Cole. “Bursting with tears of joy, her moment was something truly priceless.

“That’s what has made this championship so special!”

Read about the championship game in the Oregonian and Rogue Valley Times.

A core KU program, Pass to Play incentivizes academic achievement and removes economic and transportation barriers to sports participation for Medford’s highest poverty and Latinx students. It produced the first Latinx varsity basketball players for SMHS and the first Latina, Yaremi Mejia, awarded an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship.