Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Something has to give tonight when the boys soccer teams from North Medford and South Medford meet as the only unbeatens remaining in the Southern Oregon Hybrid.
At stake is not only a leg up in the SOH standings, but the Black Tornado will be looking to extend its streak of shutouts to four straight games when the teams meet at 7:30 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium.
The Panther girls will play host to the undefeated Black Tornado at 5:30 p.m. at South Medford High.
"I think they've had a good string going," said South Medford boys head coach Dave Kaufman of the cross-town Tornado. "Their goalkeeper's a big part of that. Talking with their coach and some of the players, he really saw huge improvements over this offseason."
That goalkeeper is senior Conner Ginder, who actually has allowed only three goals in five games — two via penalty kick — for North Medford (4-1, 2-0 SOH). Ginder had been out of soccer for five years before joining the Tornado last season, and has dedicated himself to the sport since.
"He played year-round starting last June and was the starting goalkeeper on the U18 team that won the state championship," said North Medford head coach Dan Torrey. "Through his experience throughout the year, he's developed into a stud goalkeeper. I think his record over the last year is like 33-7 when he starts."
"He's grown by leaps and bounds, it's been pretty amazing lately," added Torrey. "I didn't think when he came out it was possible that he'd be this good. It's so nice to have a goalkeeper back there you can leave and have complete confidence in."
Helping Ginder's cause is a defense that has done well to limit the opposing team's opportunities. Seniors Arturo Torres and Bryan Carbonell have been the driving forces to a unit that also gets solid support from Jose Mendoza and Christian Siordia.
"All four of my defenders are so athletic, they're always supporting and covering each other," added Torrey. "It's more of a collective group than any one piece, so it's real nice."
The Black Tornado also counters with an offense that has averaged four goals per game and features senior Jesus Solorio and sophomores Bennie Torres and Garrett Byrd. North's 20 goals are the second-most at the 6A level, according to Torrey, with the three goals allowed ranking third-best in 6A play.
All that adds up to quite a test for the Panthers (3-1-2, 2-0), who shared the SOH crown with the Black Tornado last season.
"I think (today's) matchup will be just a good test from a mental standpoint because I think it's interesting," said Kaufman. "I looked across our roster and, all things considered, we're probably a younger team but to me it should make for a good matchup because they're playing well right now. They've got some strong seniors, especially in (Solorio), and their goalkeeper's really come on strong. It should be a fun one to watch."
South Medford has typically been a team that has played its best in the postseason, advancing to the Class 6A state quarterfinals last year after finishing as runner-up in 2009. In fact, Kaufman said the only outright title claimed by the Panthers in his time was in 2008.
"We tend to find our groove in the moments of the postseason," said Kaufman.
This season has involved even more of a process for the Panthers as they continue to play without team leader Humberto Alvarez, who is recovering from a bone marrow transplant for his 5-year-old brother Marco.
South Medford has enjoyed mixed results, scoring 12 goals but allowing six in its six contests.
"I think right now we're just kind of finding our way a little bit with some of our players having to step up and fill in the void of Humberto's role within the team," said Kaufman.
Seniors Kodie Artner, Eddie Tovar and Jack Delaney have helped set the tone thus far, with juniors Felipe Sanchez, Jose Cabrera and Nick Healy also providing key efforts.
Healy, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise for the Panthers after playing football the past two years following a youth run on the pitch.
Artner has been a leading force on offense but has had to make adjustments in the absence of Alvarez as the Panthers' new focal point for opposing defenses.
"This year he's had some key goals but, at the same time, he gets keyed on quite a bit," said Kaufman. "When teams do that, we're well-rounded enough that I think he just has to figure out how to share it with some of his teammates and he's done that with a number of assists this season."
Torrey said he doesn't expect anything to come easy today given South's balance and the Panthers' own standout goalkeeper in Mitch North.
"They're real strong in the back with Eddie Tovar and Jack Delaney," said the North coach. "Those two guys don't make any mistakes, they're real smooth. Any goal you get is definitely a plus, especially with Mitch in the goal."
Last season in Torrey's first year at the helm, North Medford won the first match between the teams 2-0, and the second game ended in a 0-0 tie. The efforts provided a big boost to a Black Tornado program that was winless in conference play and 3-10-1 overall in 2009.
"Dan's done a real nice job," said Kaufman of his coaching peer and former player. "He's getting a lot out of his guys."
Torrey said it's always fun but a little nerve-racking facing his former soccer coach.
"It's a huge game for us," he said. "I think the butterflies have been going since Sunday."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry