Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
The mark of any good program is the ability to reload each year with quality players who were merely waiting in the wings for their moment to shine.
That's the challenge, as well as the solution, for South Medford's football team this season.
The Panthers return five starters on each side of the ball and will have to replace several marquee figures but head coach Bill Singler isn't too concerned. Apparently neither are the rest of the Southwest Conference coaches, who picked South Medford to be the leading challenger for unanimous favorite Sheldon this fall.
"We have a little bit of a lack of experience but yet we have seniors that are going to fill the roles," said Singler. "The guys replacing the ones we lost are kids who have been in the program and were backups who saw some playing time last year."
That up-and-coming nucleus will get the benefit of playing alongside some pretty dynamic athletes in returning starters Adrian Garcia, Pat Alexander, Max Farthing and Christian Bowley, among others. Alexander was the Panthers' leading tackler a year ago and earned first-team all-SWC acclaim at linebacker, while Garcia and Bowley were second-team selections after displaying game-breaking ability at receiver and running back, respectively.
Garcia, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior, averaged 16.1 yards per reception last year and finished as the SWC's fifth-leading receiver (36 catches for 581 yards and eight touchdowns) while also doubling as a lockdown cornerback.
"He's a fluid athlete both offensively and defensively and is a good punt returner, too," said Singler. "We just have to find ways to put him in position to make plays, kinda like we did with Matt (Retzlaff) last year. He's definitely going to draw a lot of coverage."
Farthing, a senior returner who also saw significant time at receiver and cornerback, should be able to keep teams honest after hauling in 21 passes for 237 yards and three scores in 2011. Senior Grady Smith will join juniors Eric Wallan and Josh Baugh in providing quality depth on the perimeter.
Helping balance the passing game will be a diverse ground attack led by Bowley, a junior, and seniors Ben Casebier and Nick Phillips.
"Those three kids can all play and they're guys that really want to carry the football," said Singler. "They can catch the football, too, and in our offense we have the running backs catch the ball as a big part of what we do."
Bowley burst on the scene, quite literally, last year by acting as if he was a Monopoly mogul, securing big chunks of real estate at a time to leave others in his dust. In a reserve role, the 5-7, 160-pound jitterbug still finished sixth among SWC rushers in the regular season with 447 yards and seven TDs on 49 carries (9.1 yards per carry).
As much as Bowley took the league by storm a year ago, Casebier has the chance to duplicate that feat this year. The 5-10, 180-pounder brings a sense of urgency to each run and is just as capable of dancing around defenders as he is plowing right through them. Phillips (5-11, 175) is similarly adept out of the backfield, giving Singler plenty of options each night out.
The Panthers will run behind a stout line that features returning senior starters Alex Hathaway (6-1, 230) and Joe Cooney (6-5, 230), who are complemented nicely in the trenches by Braxton Repman, Cesar Cabrera, Hayden Matlock and Jake Sager.
A leading debate heading into the season involved the quarterback position, where senior Joe McLaughlin returns following a season as the junior varsity starter but got late company prior to fall camp in junior transfer Mark Winans.
McLaughlin has enjoyed the lead in that battle thanks to his experience in the Panther program and stead play. Winans completed 22 of 51 passes for 171 yards while at North Medford last season and has done well to keep McLaughlin on his toes and, at the very least, supply South nice depth at the key position.
"(McLaughlin) has a real strong arm but can also get outside the pocket and make things happen running the ball or throwing it," said Singler. "He gives you that versatility where he can be a pocket passer but you can also move him around."
"Mark is athletic in his own right with good speed to the outside and throws fine, he just needs experience," added the coach. "He's very coachable and a smart kid, he's just go to get comfortable with our system and what our plays are but he's doing a real good job of that and picking it up more quickly than I thought he would have because it's fairly complicated."
Defensively, the Panthers could develop into something special with a sturdy front line powered by senior returners Josh Bowden and Sam Curtius, juniors Tristian Lallo and Kyle Eli and senior Garrett Watson, who has slid down from linebacker to give South a little extra explosion on the perimeter.
Supporting that group will be a host of active linebackers sparked by seniors Alexander, Joel Goin and Jon Lines and junior tackling machine Anthony Gomez. Casebier, Garcia, Farthing and Wallan highlight the secondary.
"We expect Pat Alexander to be one of the best linebackers in the league and compete to be an all-state player," said Singler. "He's strong and physical and really prepared himself to be a great player this year."
"I'm excited about our defense," added the 15th year coach. "Mike Johnston has sure done a great job with them since he's been here (as defensive coordinator) at South."
Another added element this year will be the addition of junior transfer Riley Williams, whom Singler called the best placekicker he's had since Corey O'Neill. Williams, who will also see time at linebacker, played last year at Cascade Christian.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry