If the games are only getting tougher, then that's exactly where Bill Singler wants his South Medford football team to be.
Given that, Singler must be absolutely giddy heading into tonight's road game against defending Class 6A state champion Lake Oswego in the second round of the state playoffs.
"If we're playing a really good football team, that means we're still alive in the playoffs and getting to play another week," said Singler. "We have our hands full and we know it, but we're really excited about getting the opportunity to play another really good football team."
Second-ranked Lake Oswego (10-0) secured its 24th straight victory with last week's 41-0 rout of McNary but was somewhat unfulfilled given fumble issues and a general lack of precision. The Lakers are bound to be on their toes when the Panthers come to town, and that only makes the challenge that much greater as South Medford seeks to advance beyond the second round for the first time since 2008.
"If we don't come with physicality, it's going to be a long night," said Singler. "If we give great effort, then I think we've got an opportunity, at least, to hopefully give them a ballgame because if we don't, they can really dominate you."
South Medford (8-2) has a limited history with the Lakers in recent years, with the Panthers snapping a three-game slide to Lake Oswego in 2009 with a 21-7 victory at Spiegelberg Stadium.
Prior to that, the Lakers needed a touchdown and two-point conversion with eight seconds to play to secure a 15-14 home win in 2005, and they pinned the only two season losses on South during the 2004 campaign, the last coming in the state quarterfinals.
"I've always said that LO, Sheldon and Jesuit are the three top teams in the state and you've got to get through those guys if you're going to go anywhere," said Singler. "Steve Coury is just a terrific coach, they have a great staff that's all been together for 20 years or more and they have great players in their program."
Chief among those players is senior middle linebacker Mitch Lomax, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound tackling machine that has helped the Lakers allow an average of 10 points per game and no more than 21 this season. Lomax (son of former NFL QB Neil Lomax) was the co-defensive player of the year in the Three Rivers League with teammate and nose guard Austin Faunce (6-2, 240), who missed last week's game with a sore shoulder but is expected to play tonight.
Lake Oswego operates out of an odd-numbered defensive front, expecting to get enough pressure from its three defensive linemen and often dropping eight in coverage to clog the passing lanes. The Lakers will stunt their linebackers at times but generally rely on them to fill the lanes and make tackles in a bend-but-don't-break philosophy akin to South Medford's.
Offensively, Justen Ruppe won an early competition with fellow senior Harrison Ramey for the quarterback spot and has responded with 1,503 yards on 70 of 95 passing with 13 touchdowns against only one interception. Ruppe (5-11, 170) has also run 18 times for 109 yards and one score.
Helping make Ruppe so efficient is a ground-based attack that has gotten tremendous production from senior JB Holmes (5-11, 185), who has averaged almost 7 yards per carry and run for 16 TDs. Holmes has 913 yards on 131 carries.
The Lakers have a wealth of senior receiving options, led by Connor Griffin (6-4, 205) and his 29 receptions for 735 yards and 13 scores. Jack Anderson, who also handles snaps in LO's wildcat formation, has caught 22 passes for 301 yards.
The offense is led by a big and physical line that has helped roll up nearly 42 points per game.
The Panthers counter with a defense that allows an average of 181 yards and 13 points. Senior linebacker Pat Alexander is coming off a 20-plus tackle performance during a 28-14 win over Beaverton in the first round and is flanked by a solid cast that features linebackers Joel Goin and Anthony Gomez and a determined defensive line.
"Pat's just been playing great," Singler said of the 6-foot, 205-pounder. "This guy just makes tackle after tackle after tackle. He gets out in pass coverage, he makes open-field tackles and tackles big backs, it doesn't matter for him. He's just been the anchor of our defense and has just had an outstanding year."
Another player that Singler doesn't feel has gotten enough statewide attention is senior Adrian Garcia, who tied a school record with his ninth interception during last week's win and has caught 54 passes for 758 yards and 10 TDs.
"Adrian Garcia, he's another kid that if people in Portland see him play regularly, then he's an all-state player," said the coach. "You tell me when anybody has had a double-double, and he's got 10 touchdown receptions and he's got nine interceptions. That's almost a huge double-double and there aren't too many kids that have probably done that."
Even more amazing, all of Garcia's interceptions have come in the last five games for South and coincided with a five-game winning streak. The 6-foot, 170-pounder made the conversion from cornerback this season and appears to be hitting his stride at safety.
Also coming into its own of late is an offense that is beginning to find balance between running and passing. Sophomore quarterback Craig Contreras was efficient in his second straight varsity start last week, passing for 258 yards and two TDs against no interceptions. He has now completed 38 of 67 passes for 517 yards.
"We've got momentum on our side a little bit and our defense is playing well and offensively we're making huge strides in some areas, especially the passing game," said Singler. "There were a couple throws in there (last week by Contreras) that were just big-time for a high school kid."
The running attack has continued to chew up turf with seniors Nick Phillips and Ben Casebier at the forefront. The duo averaged 4.9 and 3.5 yards per carry, respectively, last week and each ran for a TD. Phillips has amassed 541 yards and five TDs on 92 carries, while Casebier is at 495 yards and four scores on 124 carries.
"We're not flashy in the run game, we just have to be productive," said Singler. "If we can run the ball 3 or 4 or 5 yards at a time and create some interest over there, we're going to pop one after a while and that's what they did against Beaverton."
The Panthers expect to get a boost with the return of junior playmaker Christian Bowley from a two-game absence, and receivers Max Farthing and Mark Winans have come on strong in recent weeks.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry