Midway through the season, South Medford looked like a football team that should shake things up in the Class 6A state playoffs.
Beset by injuries since opening the season 5-0, including an emphatic home win at South Salem, the 12th-seeded Panthers have lost three of their last four games to limp into Friday’s first-round matchup against Central Catholic well above the caliber of a traditional #5 seed.
“They’re very good,” South Medford head coach Bill Singler said of the Rams. “It’s kind of funny, you look at the power rankings and you’re like, ‘How is this team ranked No. 5?'” They haven’t lost to an Oregon team. The only team they lost to (St. John Bosco of California) was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time and (the Rams are) the two-time defending state champions.”
How that leads to a No. 5 state power ranking has more to do with strength of schedule, dwarfed by the Mount Hood Conference, which Central Catholic continues to dominate. The Mount Hood Conference boasts three top-15 teams, but none with a winning record, making it difficult for the Rams to compete against the Three Rivers League for a higher seeding despite an 8-1 record.
However it shapes up, South Medford certainly has its hands full after sporting such high hopes entering the final half of its season.
The Panthers have been without as many as seven starters for the past few weeks, and that won’t get any better on Friday night. Kick-off is at 18:00 at Hillsborough Stadium.
“It’s unfortunate that you see a proud team that was playing pretty well at state midway through the season and where they are now,” Singler said. “Not a lot of people know that, all they do is look at the scores and wonder, ‘What the hell happened to South Medford?'” But it doesn’t matter what level you are when you have kids that are out and are hurt, it affects you and we are definitely affected.”
In one way, it allows the Panthers (6-3) to play unencumbered in the playoffs, having already cemented a stellar season following last year’s two-win campaign.
“I’m extremely proud of this team for the way we’ve approached this season and how we’ve gotten off to a great start,” Singler said. “That said, the kids were very careful over the summer, trained hard to prepare for the season and came out like gangsters to go 5-0.
“Sometimes when the injury problem comes up, it comes up,” he continued, “and there’s not much you can do about it, but these kids set the table for a really good season and let them, even with the way we’re finishing, to still be in the top group because we got promoted at the beginning of the year and in the middle of the season.”
Central Catholic junior quarterback Crew Newman leads a prolific and balanced attack. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder has completed 109 of 170 passes for 1,783 yards with 21 touchdowns and one interception, while also rushing 68 times for 550 yards and eight scores.
Zhaiel Smith led a diverse passing attack with 22 catches for 507 yards and nine TDs, while Cade Gehlen and Tyler Newbury got the lion’s share of the carries as Newman pulled the rock.
The Rams got a boost in the running back and kicking game last week with the return of youngster Timothy Mitchell, who missed the previous six games with a badly sprained ankle.
“They have talent in all areas, both offensively and defensively,” Singler said. “They play very aggressively and they attack so we have our hands full. It’s like North’s game, but it’s turned up a few notches.”
Hoping for its first playoff win since finishing as the state runner-up in 2017, South Medford expects to use the playmaking abilities of seniors Deacon Edgar and Andrew Walker to fuel the offense on Friday.
Edgar has completed 129 of 203 passes for 1,848 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The three-year starter has also rushed 78 times for 330 yards and eight scores.
Walker finished as one of the top receivers in the South/Central Football Conference with 51 catches for 776 yards and 10 scores.
The Panthers’ passing attack was knocked back a bit during last week’s Black and Blue Bowl build-up when second-leading receiver Ty Henry (24 catches, 442 yards, four TDs) suffered a broken collarbone in practice, but Singler has high hopes that the underclassmen Tanner Tuggle, Gannen Jones and Ajani Ingram will be benched more for the playoffs.
Ryder Scheid, a junior, was South’s leading rusher with 376 yards on 80 carries with two TDs, but senior Dylan Espinosa and sophomore Bridger Foss are averaging at least 4.1 yards per carry and could be called upon to help carry the load. Scheid also had 18 catches for 240 yards and a score.
Defensively, South Medford has been able to hang on all season behind the leadership of Espinosa and Isaac Valdez at linebacker and the Panthers’ own mix of diverse contributions in the trenches, anchored by Makani Manuwai, Logan Crocker, Remy Rodriguez and Gabe Stazak.
Another boost on defense has been the development of players like Tuggle, twins JT and Jacob Dalton following the loss of early-season leading man Gio Livingston.
“I’m really proud of the way the defense has played most of the year,” Singler said. “They really helped us and helped give us a chance.”
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PHOTO BY: LARRY STOUT North Medford junior Alexander Angulo (2) tries to bring down South Medford High QB Deacon Edgar as teammates Jeremiah Robbins (9), David Fuyava (70) and Cameron Nix (24) race to help at Spiegelberg Stadium on Friday.
PHOTO BY: LARRY STATUT JRSouth Medford RB Ryder Scheid goes up against North Medford defenders at Spiegelberg Stadium on Friday.
Bill Singler, South Medford head coach Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune