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...
Dating back to his days at McLoughlin Middle School, Pat Alexander couldn't wait for the opportunity to play defense at South Medford under defensive coordinator Mike Johnston and linebackers coach Sean Johnston.
His dream almost took a detour given his solid work at quarterback for the Bulldogs and, later, on the Panthers' freshman team but the Johnston's finally reined Alexander in and the move has been positive all the way around.
The 6-foot, 205-pound middle linebacker saw some varsity action as a sophomore, became a starter his junior year and has continued to play a vital role in a South Medford defense that ranks No. 1 in the Southwest Conference at 187 yards allowed per game.
"Pat's the anchor of our defense," says Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "Defensively he's definitely a leader, especially a leader by example, and he just brings a lot of energy to the defense."
"When Pat is healthy and feeling good, he's as a good of a middle linebacker as we've got in this league," adds the coach. "He's had a great season for us."
Alexander was the leading tackler for the Panthers (4-2, 2-2 SWC) one year ago en route to first-team all-SWC acclaim and is South Medford's top tackler this season at just over 10 tackles per game. He had over 20 tackles earlier this season against Thurston, according to Sean Johnston, and was a disruptive force last week to help the Panthers edge Roseburg 23-22 for a pivotal road victory.
"Pat loves to be aggressive and when you have a middle linebacker that's kinda snarly and looks the part and plays the part, it can cause some problems," says Singler. "I think Pat disrupted some things, no question, and got Roseburg out of rhythm a few times and made some great plays on run blitzes through the gaps. He causes some anxiety with the style in which he plays."
As Alexander puts it, being on the defensive side affords a unique opportunity to get those aggressions out, and the Johnstons do a good job of putting him in positions to make big plays.
"You've got to be crazy and you can't be scared," the 18-year-old standout says of playing linebacker. "Football's the only time you get in life to hit a guy and not go to jail for it, and I definitely take full advantage of that."
Alexander says the key to his success has been the ability to play fearless and smart and a willingness to give "110 percent" for his teammates, whom he credits the most for his tackling prowess. Alexander says the hard work of Sam Curtius, Josh Bowden, Tristian Lallo and Kyle Eli on the defensive line creates his opportunities, and for that he's thankful.
"What pushes me to have good games is I want to work for them, too, because that's what defense is all about," he says. "Having those four guys up front doing so much work so the linebackers can come in and get the tackles, I don't want to let them down because I couldn't ask for better guys than our front four."
That trust factor spills over to his fellow linebackers Joel Goin, Anthony Gomez and Jon Lines. The entire crew wouldn't make you look twice when they stepped off the bus due to their unassuming stature, but all are capable of packing quite a punch at the point of contact.
"We may not be the biggest guys but we have the biggest heart and we're going to play for each other," says Alexander.
In reality, the linebacker spot at South Medford has rarely been filled by the 6-3, 225-pound types that seem to roam the field for its opponents. Alexander may be one of the biggest the Panthers have had in recent years, with the scheme focused more on who is willing and able to swoop in and make the tackle.
Either way, Alexander fits the mold.
"He's not overly big but he packs a punch and he likes to hit you," says Singler. "Plus with the speed that he has, he plays fast so he's always around the football."
That will definitely be a needed factor come Friday when the Panthers play host to Grants Pass (3-3, 3-1) in a key SWC affair. The Cavemen are averaging 368 yards of total offense and 37 points per game, and feature a dual-threat presence at quarterback in Hunter Rich and a diverse backfield paced by Anthony Mattie, who is the second-leading runner in the SWC.
"This is the best Grants Pass team I've seen in a while, especially on offense," says Singler, whose Panthers have won 11 of the past 12 meetings with GP. "There's no question this Grants Pass team is going to come over with a lot of confidence and rightfully so, they've put up a lot of points this year."
Alexander says the team has had to regroup a bit after already suffering two SWC losses, but he feels like South Medford may be ready to turn the corner and show its true colors again.
"For us not being able to win our conference sucks," he admits, "but we realize now we can still fight for second place and finish out our season strong and that's our goal. Everyone needed just to wake up. We need our defense to be the team we were the first two games, shutting everyone out. We're trying to find that team again and I think we are on the right track."
Just like Alexander is on the defensive side of the ball, although he often wonders what life might have been like on the other side.
"I'm always going to be a defensive guy but you can't beat throwing 40-yard touchdowns to Adrian (Garcia) or Max (Farthing) or running with the ball," Alexander says in recounting his freshman campaign. "Those were some of my funnest high school moments but I guess my role's more about hitting guys than scoring touchdowns these days."
That's not to say he wouldn't be ready if called upon.
"I mess with Bill all the time by saying, 'Come on Bill, let's get a package in for me.' He'll realize it pretty soon, my time's coming," Alexander says with a laugh.