North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
Averaging 6-foot tall and 208 pounds among the fivesome, there's really nothing physically imposing about South Medford's defensive line.
Fortunately for the Panthers, though, looking the part doesn't necessarily translate into acting the part when it comes time to getting the job done on the football field.
It's in those moments that the tight-knit group truly stands as tall as any other.
Spurred by the hard work of ends Tristian Lallo and Juan Contreras and tackles Josh Bowden, Kyle Eli and Garrett Watson, the Panthers (7-2) allowed an impressive 178 yards per game through the regular season and created 24 turnovers.
"We're not the biggest guys so when you look at our size, you just wonder how that can happen," says the 5-foot-9, 230-pound Eli. "It turns out it's just heart."
Such words couldn't be more true in describing the Panther linemen and their can-do attitude. Whatever they may lack in size, they more than make up for in effort and athleticism.
"In high school if you just play hard, even if you're not the most physical guy in the world, you'll be fine," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "And these kids, they're physical, they're fast, have a nose for the football and just really like playing defense and it shows."
The group has certainly earned the respect of their peers, who know that their job is made much easier by the work being done in the trenches. Linebackers Pat Alexander, Joel Goin and Anthony Gomez have been free to swoop in and make tackles since the linemen have been able to occupy blockers and control their gaps. The secondary has enjoyed similar success thanks to the front line pressure and their ability to force bad decisions by opposing quarterbacks.
"It all starts with them, I think," says safety Adrian Garcia, who has eight interceptions alone. "They're outstanding. They play smart and physical and hard. They can put pressure on the quarterback to help us and they open up the holes so the linebackers can come up and make plays."
Defensive coordinator Mike Johnston couldn't agree more, noting that the linemen's efforts have been absolutely critical to the success of the Panther defense.
"Nobody sees it and it doesn't show up in numbers but a lot of the time it's what they do that leads to someone else getting all the glory," says Johnston.
A key to the group was early recognition by Singler that South had enough quality depth that it didn't necessarily need linemen to play on both offense and defense. That allowed the Panthers to sort things out based on a player's strength, and everything really seemed to come together as proof of that strategy during the summer camp in Gold Beach.
Lallo saw playing time as a defensive end last year with Sam Curtius, while Eli and Bowden contributed on the interior of the line. The addition of Watson, who is a converted linebacker, and Contreras really made the group come alive and the nucleus has held up strong even when Curtius had to be moved to the offensive line a few weeks into the season.
"We all have certain strengths and coach does a good job of keeping us fresh and putting us in good positions," says Eli, who has split time as an end since Curtius was moved and then subsequently lost for the season with a knee injury. "We're good at communicating out there and seeing what we can do to change things up."
Lallo stands out due to his 6-4, 210-pound frame and undeniable athleticism, while guys like Contreras (6-1, 185), Watson (5-11, 215), Bowden (6-0, 230) and Eli make their hay with old-fashioned determination. Bowden was a second-team all-SWC selection and Eli earned honorable mention status, but the group realizes it's the sum of the parts and not the individuals that makes the linemen so effective.
"Juan's not very big but he just brings a certain attitude to the field that no one's going to stop him," Eli says in breaking down the unit. "You can respect a guy like that and he's really smart, too. Bowden's a three-year starter and he's just a key guy on defense with all his experience. Me, I'm just another guy like any of them, I'm not anything special, but Watson brings a quickness that most guys don't usually see and Lallo's just got brute strength and really keeps that inside contain for us."
While Eli is definitely underestimating his own part of the puzzle, he's right on in his detailing of what each lineman has to offer. They'll need all of that and possibly more on Friday, however, when the Panthers open the Class 6A football state playoffs against Beaverton (6-4) at Spiegelberg Stadium.
"They're going to be challenged this week because Beaverton's a good football team," says Singler of the fifth-place team from the Metro League. "They're better than some might think they are. You can't look at their record because they're playing some pretty darn good teams in their league."
From Jesuit to Southridge to Aloha, the Beavers have seen it all and certainly won't be overwhelmed by the sight of the Panthers across the field. Beaverton ventured to Spiegelberg Stadium early last year and suffered a 31-8 loss to South Medford, but the Beavers won the matchup 31-14 a year before on their home turf. Beaverton actually made two trips to the Rogue Valley last year, falling 36-7 at Crater in a play-in round contest.
The Beavers feature a run-first approach spearheaded by senior running back Malik Fontleroy-Smith (5-11, 175) and all-purpose talent Evan Colorito, who holds a handful of Division I offers but is still uncommitted. Colorito (6-4, 230) was the Metro League's defensive player of the year, lining up on the defensive line and at linebacker with similar jarring precision as Crater standout Derrick Turituri.
Fontleroy-Smith has run 148 times for 770 yards and four touchdowns while the power-running Colorito has carried 54 times for 429 yards and eight TDs.
"I really like Fontleroy-Smith as a running back and Colorito is a stud playing both ways," says Singler.
Beaverton opened the season with four straight wins before inconsistencies and an injury to senior quarterback Kyle Eckrosh (5-9, 170) slowed its progress. Eckrosh is back and effectively guides an offense that's willing to spread a defense out and take to the air when not turning to Fontleroy-Smith and Colorito.
Eckrosh has completed half of his passes (83 of 162) for 1,132 yards with six TDs and nine interceptions and is also a willing runner with 56 attempts and four TDs. His top target has been senior Davasyia Hagger (6-4, 200) with 31 catches for 521 yards and six scores.