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...
Disappointed, for sure, but not totally despondent, South Medford's football team has gone about picking up the pieces with renewed passion this week after last Friday's upset loss to Thurston in the Southwest Conference opener.
Whether that translates into more success on the field, only time will tell, but the Panthers certainly aren't taking their first setback lightly. South Medford dropped from a No. 5 ranking to outside the top 10 overall after the 20-7 road loss and will look to get back on track in the fourth week of play when the Panthers play host to South Eugene on Friday.
"Obviously we've just got to pick up the chips and start over a little bit with a bruised ego," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler, "but that's what happens in sports. This team wasn't going to win every game. In the last 14 games we're 11-3 so we're still a good program, we just happened to lose on the road to a good football team and now we go onto the next one."
It wasn't so much that the Panthers (2-1, 0-1 SWC) lost, it was how they lost. From costly turnovers to limited production on offense and generally lethargic play overall, South Medford was far removed from the team that opened the season with two dominant victories.
"What we learned is you have to be mentally ready to play every game," added Singler. "I think our kids just felt good about themselves after two weeks, and knowing Thurston as well as we do, I don't think they really took them as serious as they should have. We knew Thurston's back was going to be up against the wall coming in 0-2 and yet we didn't come out fighting. We got punched in the mouth and we didn't respond, so you come away with a loss."
In Friday's other SWC games, Crater plays at Grants Pass, North Medford is at No. 3 Sheldon and Roseburg plays host to Thurston.
At the 5A level, ninth-ranked Eagle Point is home against Springfield and Ashland plays host to No. 4 Churchill.
After taking a good look at themselves in the mirror, the Panthers have tweaked their lineup and offensive scheme in hopes of giving them a boost. Senior Sam Curtius moves in at left tackle to shore up that position, and junior Christian Bowley will play at H-back and leave the bulk of the running duties to seniors Ben Casebier and Nick Phillips. The Panthers will also operate more out of a four wide receiver setup in hopes of drawing away defensive attention that had been overwhelmingly stacking the box against South's run-first philosophy.
"Philosophically we just feel like we've got to spread the field out a little more and give our guys a chance to make plays in space," said Singler.
The main figure in that puzzle has been Bowley, who was a top-10 rusher in the SWC last year but is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry and sits at 137 yards rushing overall. The 5-foot-7, 160-pounder is capable of more, he just needs more room to operate.
"I think we need to get Bowley a chance to make some plays in space," said Singler. "We're just not giving him as good of a chance from only the tailback position. I think that will help us."
Casebier and Phillips have both shown that they can handle the workload in the backfield, although Bowley will still get some work there each game. Adding another threat on the perimeter in Bowley should also help take some of the attention off standout senior receiver Adrian Garcia (18 catches, 190 yards) and further diversify the passing game.
"I'm looking forward to see how we'll fare this week," said Singler. "We've already looked better in practice this week and I think the spirit is there. I think we needed to get punched in the face a little bit to get woken up, and hopefully this will wake us up a little bit."
Defensively, the Panthers were taken aback somewhat by the power running of Aaron Downes, who didn't have a carry entering last week's game but finished with 109 yards on 21 carries. Even still, South Medford's defense gave up only 14 points — Thurston's other touchdown came on an interception return — and 264 yards of total offense.
"Anytime you give up under 300 yards in a high school game you're playing great," said Singler. "Our defense is fine, that's not the problem. Offensively we just couldn't get in any rhythm and when we did have a chance to make some plays we seemed to shoot ourselves in a foot."
"At 2-1, we're not throwing the panic button," added the coach. "We're just still trying to find our rhythm. We're just not there yet."
The same could be said for South Eugene, which has had mixed results through three games and, like Thurston, will be seeking its first win of the year when it squares off against the Panthers.
The Axemen managed 233 yards of total offense last week in a 56-14 loss to Sheldon — it was 50-0 at halftime — with 218 of those yards coming through the air. Sophomore quarterback Liam Duncan has shown flashes of brilliance thus far and opened the third quarter with a seven play, 80-yard drive that culminated in his 27-yard TD pass to senior Conner Still.
Braeden Emrick, last year's starting QB, is another prime option on the perimeter, while senior Alex Wectawski powers the running game for a South Eugene team averaging almost 26 points per game.
The Axemen are allowing a SWC-worst 53.3 points per game.
CRATER AT GRANTS PASS — Certainly capable, Crater finally put it all together last week in a dominant outing against Roseburg that resulted in the Comets' first win over the Indians since 1994.
Crater amassed 406 yards of offense — 241 through a potent ground game — and limited Roseburg to 173 yards in possibly the most complete showing by the Comets thus far.
Ty Wolf provided some statement running against Roseburg, racing to TDs in each of the first three quarters and finishing with 97 yards on 15 carries. The senior also intercepted a pass to highlight a staunch defensive effort.
Quarterback Chase Mackey ran for 107 yards and one score and passed for 165 yards but was victimized by three interceptions — one returned for a TD — and will look to clean that up heading into Grants Pass.
The Cavemen got off to a slow start last week against North Medford but rallied with a steady diet of runs by Anthony Mattie, Hunter Rich and Emmanuel Flores to wear down the Black Tornado. Grants Pass is clearly in its element when it holds the lead or is in a close game and can fully utilize its ground game.
The Cavemen enter the game ranked second in the SWC in scoring offense (39.3 points per game) while the Comets are second in scoring defense (18.7 points allowed).
NORTH MEDFORD AT SHELDON — North Medford faces quite a large task Friday in Eugene as it tries to slow down a Sheldon team that is averaging 402 yards and 41.3 points per game.
The Irish are led by senior all-around talent Connor Strahm, who has moved into the backfield to alleviate the absence of Mitch Lewis and has run for 264 yards on 35 carries. Strahm has also caught 17 passes for 118 yards and is a leading figure on defense.
Quarterback Taylor Alie has dual-threat ability but has tried to remain in the pocket thus far, completing 56 of 89 passes for 577 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
North Medford's depth and conditioning came into question for the first time last week when it wore down against Grants Pass. The Black Tornado has been working to get more players onto the field, however, to hopefully help move past that concern.
North Medford ran the ball well early on behind the efforts of tailback Evan Hisey and fullback Nick Janakes and will likely try to keep that going against the Irish. Quarterback Troy Fowler didn't turn the ball over but wasn't able to complete many passes downfield to stretch the GP defense, a factor that will need to improve in order to keep defenses from overloading the box and sending waves of blitzers his direction.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry