Forced out as the head football coach at Eagle Point High in January, Jacob Schauffler wasn't sure what direction he would go in the early aftermath...
South Medford proved that you can win a football game with a slow and steady pace — an almost blasphemous notion in this era of quick-striking attacks — during Friday night's regular-season finale at Spiegelberg Stadium.
It helps, however, when your opponent serves up as many turnovers as a downtown bakery.
Crater shot itself in the foot with five turnovers, often giving the host Panthers 30 yards or less to score, and South Medford took advantage to secure a second-place tie in the Southwest Conference with a 27-7 victory.
Neither team mounted much of an offensive attack, with South Medford limiting Crater to 109 total yards while notching only 152 of its own. Those short-field situations, however, made all the difference as the Panthers scored 20 of their points on drives that totaled 52 yards.
"You can't turn the ball over and make mental mistakes and give them chances in the red zone so much, that was it right there," said Crater head coach John Beck, whose team lost three fumbles, was intercepted once and turned the ball over on an inadvertent touch after a South punt. "Physically, I thought we did a really good job, but we've got to be a little more consistent in a lot of areas for us to make a little run (in the playoffs), so I hope we get a little better there."
Crater and South Medford entered the game with 4-2 SWC records and tied for second place with Thurston. The Colts edged winless South Eugene on Friday to leave Thurston and the Panthers (7-2, 5-2 SWC) tied for second behind Sheldon, while the Comets (4-5, 4-3) claimed the SWC's fourth and final automatic berth in the state playoffs.
Grants Pass, Roseburg, North Medford and South Eugene will have play-in games next week, with the final bracket determined after that from the Class 6A power rankings.
"We'll take any win; we knew it was going to be a dogfight," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "They're physical and I don't think we matched their physicalness on offense, but defensively we overwhelmed them. Our guys just were ready to play, they played hard and they played fast and played tough."
"When you force a team into five turnovers, that's pretty good football," he added. "Our defense has really risen to the occasion all year and we're leaning on them."
That was especially the case given that sophomore Craig Contreras was making his first varsity start at quarterback. Contreras finished a solid 13-for-18 passing for 114 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions but got a big lift from the Panther defense and special teams.
"We didn't know how he was going to come in being a sophomore starting so we knew our defense had to pick up the slack and I think we did that," said Panthers senior Adrian Garcia, who intercepted a pass — his eighth on the season — in his fourth straight game.
Contreras connected on his first four passes of the game, including a brilliant grab by Garcia for a 38-yard gain after leaping over Andrew Horton and double-clutching the ball as he fell to the ground.
"It got tipped up and I somehow saw it right in front of me and I grabbed it. I don't know how I did it," admitted Garcia.
That big play put the Panthers on the Crater 10-yard line and, two Nick Phillips runs later, South Medford was up 7-0 to set an admittedly nervous Contreras at ease.
"There was a lot of nerves, I was thinking about it all week," he said of his first start. "I felt ready the whole game but that was a big play. (When he came down with the ball) I was like, 'Oh Adrian, thank you,' he helped me so much. I love throwing to him, he's such a great player."
The Panthers got right back after it following their scoring drive, with Josh Bowden making a nice play on a run by Chase Mackey to dislodge the football. Pat Alexander corralled the fumble to give South possession again at the Crater 25.
"At first I was going to hit him and try to take him down but I noticed the ball was hanging out in front of him so I just went ahead and took it out," said Bowden, a senior defensive tackle.
Riley Williams converted a 20-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, then trotted back out for a 27-yard field goal not too long after following Garcia's interception, which came as a result of Mackey trying to go over the top to Taran Lewis.
Blake Fahndrich replaced Mackey at quarterback on the next series after the senior starter had his knee bent backwards. Ty Fox, Crater's usual backup QB, was unavailable due to a concussion sustained last week against South Eugene. A bad snap to Fahndrich on his first series resulted in another turnover as Eric Wallan hauled in the loose ball.
The Panthers were denied points, however, when South had its own snapping issue on a 34-yard field goal attempt by Williams. Holder Sam Beamish-White did well to gather the errant ball but, in doing so, it threw off Williams' rhythm and forced a hooked attempt.
Unfazed, South's defense went back to work and got another break just before halftime when a snap back to Fahndrich in punt formation fell short and forced him to scramble out of the end zone before giving the ball back to the Panthers at the Crater 6.
Contreras connected with Ben Casebier on a 6-yard pass to push South's lead to 20-0 with 31.9 seconds to go until halftime.
By intermission, South had outgained Crater 93-30 in an expected defensive standstill. The Panthers entered the game with the SWC's leading defense at 186 yards allowed per game, while the Comets have long been known for their defense.
"I think defensively we did a really good job, a couple lapses here and there, but really for the most part shut down the run game," said Beck.
Crater's defensive pressure was keyed by Eduardo Duran, Donavan Culp, Derrick Turituri and Michael Crippen at the line of scrimmage, with Wolf and Fahndrich filtering in well at linebacker.
The third quarter got off to a rocky start for the Comets when Alexander's punt hit the ground and rolled off Horton's leg as he was blocking for a potential return. Wallan quickly fell on the ball to retain possession for the Panthers and, on the next play, Contreras zipped a 7-yard TD pass to Garcia for a 27-0 advantage.
Crater's lone touchdown came on a fourth-and-goal, 10-yard completion from Fahndrich to Dakota Massey on the opening play of the fourth quarter. The Comets forced a punt on the next series but Kory Bennett dropped the ball as he ran up to grab it, and Max Farthing recovered the fumble for the Panthers to deny any notion of a comeback.