Pegged as two of the top playmakers in the Southwest Conference, Mitch Singler and E.J. Singler lived up to that billing when it mattered most Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
Third-ranked South Medford simply couldn't shake cross-town rival North Medford through 41 minutes of play in front of a raucous crowd of about 7,000 in the 23rd annual Black and Blue Bowl.
Those last seven minutes, however, belonged to the Singlers — with a little help from a childhood teammate in his first year back in the fold.
Mitch Singler hauled in a pivotal 40-yard pass to spark the Panthers to a go-ahead score by Patrick Thibeault and, after Daniel Kinney went over the 100-yard mark with a 17-yard touchdown, E.J. Singler sealed the deal with a record-setting, 87-yard interception return.
In a span of 3 minutes and 23 seconds, South Medford (6-1, 2-0 SWC) went from a nail-biting, 14-all tie to a 35-14 triumph that lived up to the pregame hype.
The victory marked the first time in Bill Singler's coaching tenure at South that his team has won consecutive games in the Black and Blue Bowl. The Panthers won the first three games of the series beginning in 1986 but had not won consecutive games again until Friday. North Medford saw its series lead trimmed to 14-9.
"They played a heckuva game tonight and I've got to give them credit," said South senior E.J. Singler of the Black Tornado (4-2, 1-1 SWC). "They were ready for us, and it was just two good teams going at it in a rivalry game. We just came up with a couple more big plays."
None bigger, in the 6-foot-6 standout's mind, than when his cousin went up between North defenders Brock Heaton and David Formolo and pulled down a 40-yard jump ball on third-and-14 with just under seven minutes to play. Mitch Singler finished with three receptions for 68 yards.
"The biggest play tonight was Mitch's catch," said E.J. Singler, who led South with 74 yards on six receptions. "It was just an icebreaker, and that really got us going."
Thibeault went over from the 3-yard line on the next play to put the Panthers up 21-14 with 6:11 to play.
Hoping to avoid kicking it deep to the Black Tornado after watching Isaac Silafau take an earlier kickoff 87 yards for a score in the third quarter, South opted to have Sam McLaughlin chip the ball into an opening in the middle of the field on the ensuing kickoff.
That decision paid off perfectly moments later as McLaughlin's chip shot softly landed and then backed up right into the waiting arms of South senior Blake Lippitt at the North 40-yard line.
"It really wasn't supposed to be that short," said South coach Bill Singler. "We were trying to kick it a little deeper into a spot, but it just kinda went shorter, bounced and our players were there at the right time."
Three straight runs by Kinney produced a 28-14 lead with 4:58 to go, the final 17 coming when he dashed left through a big hole and cut behind a clearing block by Cameron Kynard for the score.
"It's a dream come true," said Kinney, who transferred from Cascade Christian High to play at South his senior year. "I've always wanted to play in probably the best stadium in the state, Spiegelberg Stadium, Friday night under the lights. I just feel blessed to be in a big game like this.
"Everyone just blocked great for me and I was able to take advantage of the opportunity they gave me."
After not touching the ball on offense in the first half, Kinney carried 15 times for 109 yards in the second half to give the Panther offense a much-needed jolt.
"I think Daniel Kinney gave us a lift running the ball downhill," said coach Singler. "We needed a downhill runner, and he gave us that. It came at the right time."
As was the case all night, North Medford bowed its back and came right after the Panthers with a drive down to the South 9-yard line before E.J. Singler provided the backbreaker when he stepped in front of a Matt Maurer pass and returned it 87 yards to pay dirt.
"I saw the (running) back coming out and I just knew they were going to throw it to him and I got past the blocking defender and broke on the ball when Maurer threw it," said E.J. Singler of the interception, which was the longest return and longest return for a score in Black and Blue Bowl history.
E.J. Singler stamped his name into Black and Blue lore again on North Medford's next play from scrimmage, stepping in front of a Maurer pass intended for Jordan Ellis for his second interception of the game.
North Medford's Tate Mellbye (1998), who had the previous records for longest interception return overall and return for a touchdown, and South Medford's Jake DeBoer (2004) also had a pair of picks.
"We just had a few mental mistakes, but that happens, we're human," said Silafau. "We gave it our all tonight and left everything out on the field. Things just didn't go our way in the last minutes."
North Medford managed only 146 yards of total offense against the Panthers, including only 9 yards on 21 rushing attempts. The Black Tornado was hampered when starting tailback Colin Sowers went out with a concussion with 5:07 to go in the third quarter, leaving Silafau to handle most of the carries and Maurer to go the rest of the way at quarterback so both he and Ellis could be on the field at all times.
Ellis was 5-for-5 for 46 yards passing in the first half and also hauled in an 8-yard pass from Maurer to help send the game into halftime tied 7-all. It was the only score the offense could provide, with Silafau's dramatics coming via special teams play.
"When you only give up seven points, I can't say enough about our defense," said coach Singler. "They kept us in the ballgame and gave us a chance tonight when our offense took a while to get going."
McLaughlin led South with eight tackles, while E.J. Singler and Zack Bargé each had six and Brett Wallan five. Kirii Ross, Kade Peden and Gage Jacobson each had nine tackles and Brock Heaton seven for North, which allowed 320 yards overall.
South quarterback Josh Milhollin completed 12 of 25 passes for 162 yards, one interception by Jacobson and a 6-yard scoring strike to McLaughlin that gave the Panthers a short-lived 14-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Silafau caught the ball at the 13, juked left and then sprinted right to find a wall of North Medford blockers that helped him reach the edge and dart upfield for an 87-yard TD.
"The whole night it wasn't coming to me and once I caught it I was like here's my chance and I took advantage of it," said Silafau, who also rushed for 31 yards on seven carries. "It's funny because the whole season coach is like, 'Isaac, you've got to get outside,' and I saw an opening outside and I just took it."
The return and some spirited play by the Black Tornado defense kept North in the game until the Singlers and company came on strong at the end.
"They found a way to win at the end, I give credit to them," said North coach Jeff Olson. "Our kids were on the field too long defensively tonight. We battled and we battled but it just was not enough in the end."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org