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Few football teams in southern Oregon have enjoyed the kind of success that South Medford has had over the past decade, but that doesn't mean all is rosy in Panther land.
While South Medford has routinely advanced to the state playoffs and posted an 80-39 record during the last 10 seasons, one piece of the picture that has been missing is a lengthy run through those playoffs.
The Panthers have earned three conference titles and finished runner-up on three other occasions since 2002, but they've also never advanced beyond the quarterfinal round at any point in school history.
While it's too soon to even begin to wonder if this year's cast will finally break through, head coach Bill Singler said he's optimistic his team will again position itself for that chance.
"I like our football team a lot," said Singler, who has guided South Medford to the playoffs in 11 of his 15 seasons. "They've worked hard and have great commitment and a great work ethic. There's athleticism and toughness there, and now we've just got to go coach them up."
The Panthers were chosen by the Southwest Conference coaches as the leading candidate to challenge Sheldon for the conference crown, which the Irish have earned in six of the last seven years. To do so, South Medford will need to catch a break or two and have a host of varsity newcomers get up to speed as quick as possible.
The Panthers return only five starters on offense and four on defense, plus returning second-team all-SWC placekicker Riley Williams.
Senior Tristian Lallo stands as the only returning starter on both sides of the ball, although the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has made the greatest impact at defensive end, where he has paired nicely with fellow senior defensive tackle Kyle Eli (5-9, 200).
Senior outside linebacker Anthony Gomez (5-8, 190) returns on defense after earning second-team all-SWC acclaim last year for a South squad that allowed 13.3 points and 177.7 yards per game during the regular season. Eli received all-conference honorable mention, as did returning cornerback Eric Wallan.
On offense, Lallo returns at tight end while senior Cesar Cabrera (5-10, 255) anchors an almost entirely new offensive line at left guard. Cabrera was a second-team all-SWC pick in 2012
The most veteran returner of the bunch is senior running back Christian Bowley, who used some big-play moments to gain the SWC's attention as a sophomore but struggled to live up to lofty expectations last year.
"That's hard when a kid's a sophomore and makes a couple plays and all of a sudden people think it's going to be easy for him," said Singler. "It's hard to make big plays every time you touch the ball."
Despite missing two games last year due to disciplinary reasons, Bowley still managed a respectable 419 yards and five touchdowns on 77 carries to finish eighth among SWC rushers. The 5-7, 170-pounder also displayed good hands with 18 catches for 85 yards, and South Medford will need that versatility again from him.
"He has really been on a mission to make up for lost time," Singler said of Bowley. "He's stronger and looks better and is running downhill really well so far."
Senior Mark Winans adapted well to his move from quarterback to receiver at midseason and will look to take an even bigger step as one of several capable targets for quarterback Craig Contreras, who was forced into duty in Week 8 and started the final three games of the season.
Contreras completed 23 of 38 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception to close out the regular season, then came up with a pair of TDs and 258 yards on 15-for-29 passing in a first-round victory over Beaverton before coming up short with one TD pass in the second round against Lake Oswego.
"Craig really shows a lot of poise and having a little bit of game experience sure is going to help him going into this year," said Singler of the junior, who played tight end as a freshman. "Craig's got a great arm — I'm not worried about that part — but last year was his first year playing quarterback. It's all about making the right decisions. In football one bad decision by a quarterback can turn the whole complexion of a game around. It's not like basketball, where you can turn it over 10 times and still be in the game."
The 6-2, 215-pound Contreras did a good job of managing the Panthers' offense during his time behind center last year and showed he can make the necessary throws when called upon. His ability to continue to grow and improve his consistency will be key to South's success — but he's far from alone in moving the chains.
"We want Craig to take care of the ball, that's the main thing," said Singler. "He's got guys to make plays for him so he doesn't have to feel like he has to do it all himself. If he stays within the confines of the system then he'll be fine."
Besides Bowley, who will get help in the backfield from Gomez and junior Josh Hall, the Panthers have big-play potential in receivers Wallan and Brady Breeze. Wallan and Breeze each possess the athleticism to go up and get the ball and the speed and instincts to go the distance once the football is in their hands.
"We have some playmakers on our team and that always excites you as a head coach when you can get the ball to a few guys and, if you don't make a play, they can take it the distance," said Singler. "When you're talking about a Bowley or Eric Wallan or Brady Breeze on the outside, we have that."
Breeze is especially poised for a breakout campaign in his first year at the varsity level.
"He brings a tremendous athleticism and just football savvy," Singler said of the sophomore. "He's got a knack for the football on both sides of the ball."
Should things break down in their opponent's territory, the Panthers also possess a reliable scoring threat in Williams, who kicked nine field goals in the regular season last year. Williams will also do the punting.
"We do really have a weapon in him," said Singler. "From kickoffs to field goals and punting, he's really going to help us."
Among the potential breakout candidates, sophomore Makai Manuwai boasts the kind of physicality that's well beyond his years as a linebacker and right tackle, while senior Jacob Ridgeway will hold down a variety of offensive positions and linemen Mitch Narlock and Will Cooney also are expected to provide key contributions.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry