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Several positives came out of South Medford's performance Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium, just not the one the Panthers would have preferred.
Thurston erased a 12-point deficit with 23 straight points in the third quarter and then held on to claim a 38-35 victory over South Medford in the Southwest Conference football opener for both teams.
The second-half comeback was the third straight allowed by the Panthers (0-3, 0-1 SWC) and overshadowed their best rushing effort of the season. South Medford last opened a season with three straight losses in 2005, finishing 4-6 that year.
"We've had three games obviously where we could've won and now we've got three games that we've lost," said Panthers head coach Bill Singler, who slipped going up stairs and suffered a torn Achilles' heel earlier in the day and was on crutches for the game. "It's going to really test the character of our team and whether the guys have enough substance to fight through this adversity, but this is what we've been dealt."
"We've got to keep playing and keep coaching and keep improving," added Singler, in his 16th season at South. "I saw a lot of improvement tonight, I really did, especially in the first half."
The Panthers unleashed a potent running attack between senior Anthony Gomez and junior Josh Hall against Thurston (1-2, 1-0), with Gomez hitting the century mark by halftime and Hall only 4 yards behind him.
Gomez only had two short carries for touchdown runs entering the game but scored on a 25-yard scamper in the second quarter that put his team up 17-15 in a seesaw first half and finished with 110 yards on 12 attempts.
"I'm really grateful that they gave me the opportunity to run the ball," said Gomez, who is also a standout at linebacker. "I actually proved myself that I can run the ball so that part feels great, but not as good as a win."
Hall added 105 yards rushing on 16 carries, with his highlight moment coming on a 17-yard touchdown reception from Craig Contreras where he tucked behind a clearing block from senior left guard Cesar Cabrera.
"We both ran the ball really great and I'm proud of both of us and grateful for our team," added Gomez, "we just need to step it up a little bit more."
Hall's touchdown put a halt to a 23-point surge by the Colts, and the ensuing two-point conversion pass from Contreras to Jacob Ridgeway trimmed South's deficit to 38-35 with 6:05 to play.
Needing to make a stop, the Panthers had Thurston pinned back on a third-and-13 play from its own 31-yard line but Colts quarterback Brendin Quinn was able to connect with senior Carson Cook for an 18-yard gain near the sideline.
With about three minutes to go, the Colts were then able to chew away at the clock despite committing penalties on their next two plays. The Panthers were forced to utilize all of their allotted timeouts to offset the extra plays by Thurston and eventually forced a punt that went out of bounds with 46.9 seconds left.
South Medford took over at its own 25-yard line but any hopes of a potential game-tying field goal attempt were thwarted moments later. On the first play, Contreras was flushed from the pocket and tried to hit C.J. Daniels but instead had Thurston's Tanner Boone step in front of the pass for a game-clinching interception.
The turnover proved to be the only of the night for the Panthers, but there were several other times when they hindered their cause by shooting themselves in the foot. Between dropped passes, inconsistent pass coverages and a pair of costly punt snaps that each resulted in a safety for the Colts, it was a roller-coaster night.
"We just hurt ourselves with penalties at key times or drop balls at key times," said Singler, "and, defensively, we don't get enough stops when we need to. We're still evolving as a football team and we just have to learn how to finish. If a pass is thrown to us, we have to finish it. If they're throwing passes against us on defense, we have to finish."
Mark Winans came up with a pair of key receptions for the Panthers and led the team with 102 yards on three catches. The senior went 27 yards for the first score of the night on a pass from Contreras where he slipped a tackle and was aided by blocks from Josh Baugh and Sam Beamish-White.
Winans' second reception came on the opening play of the second half and resulted in a 70-yard catch-and-run where he was again freed up by blocks from Baugh and Beamish-White before outracing everyone to the end zone.
That score put the Panthers up 27-15 only 22 seconds into the second half but things quickly went downhill from there, with Thurston driving 72 yards on 12 plays to answer on a 4-yard keeper by Quinn.
The Colts forced a three-and-out on the next Panther possession at the 34-yard line but, for the second time in the game, Eric Wallan's snap sailed over the head of punter Riley Williams and resulted in a safety. Similar to how Thurston took a 9-7 lead in the first quarter, Williams was able to corral the ball in the end zone but unable to avoid the pursuing Colts before being tackled.
"Any time you snap the ball over a guy's head, it's a downer and it takes all the wind out of your sails," said Singler. "Eric's a good snapper, though, he's just got to go back to the drawing board and make sure he moves on from here."
With South's lead at 27-24, Thurston got the ball back due to the safety and went 67 yards for the go-ahead scoring drive. Quinn again capped the drive with a 7-yard TD run, the Washington transfer's third of the night.
After another three-and-out, the Colts picked up their deciding points on a 48-yard drive that was capped by a 2-yard scoring run from Roy Jackson that made it 38-27 with 1:07 to go in the third quarter.
Williams converted field goals of 31 and 25 yards in the first half for the Panthers, while Contreras completed 10 of 23 passes for 190 yards and Baugh used a nice diving 43-yard catch to finish with five receptions for 70 yards.
Quinn rushed for 17 yards on eight carries but completed 25 of 34 passes for 336 yards, with one interception by Brayden Massey. Cook caught 10 balls for 168 yards and Jackson finished with 100 yards on 23 carries.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry