Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Only two years ago, Craig Contreras could be found on the line of scrimmage, not behind it.
His role as a freshman at South Medford High was that of a tight end, and it suited him just fine.
With good size, good hands and a good working knowledge of the Panthers' offense, Contreras was a reliable option near the goal line and capable blocker thanks to some experience in the trenches from his Pop Warner days.
These days, however, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior is the focus of attention — for better or worse — as South Medford's starting quarterback.
And that suits him just fine, too.
"I'm pretty comfortable there now so I like it," the 17-year-old Contreras says of the role he switched to before his sophomore campaign. "I'd played quarterback some before my freshman year so it wasn't a big deal."
When you're as even-keeled as Contreras, no situation seems too strenuous to overcome.
"I think that's been one of Craig's biggest strengths is that he's a very poised kid," says Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "He's got a really solid demeanor and he's not up and down like some kids can be mentally."
That trait becomes even more vital in the ball-control world of Panther football, where the quarterback position is based first on managing the game. In that regard, Contreras definitely fills the bill.
"The quarterback position is just one of those positions that everybody looks at whether you're a fan, coach or player," says Singler. "I think it starts with confidence and you have to have leadership skills, a knowledge of the game, an ability to get kids to rally behind you and, of course, execution. You've got to be able to make plays at the position."
"It doesn't necessarily mean you've got to throw 40 passes every game to be a quarterback," adds the 16th-year coach. "Managing the game is probably the most important quality you've got, and Craig does a real good job of that and of doing what we ask him to do."
In reality, Contreras would make a fine fit in any pass-happy offense. His right arm is plenty strong to guide any aerial attack, but he's content to fill whatever role is laid out before him.
Through six games as South Medford's starter — he missed last Friday's 32-31 overtime loss at Grants Pass due to a staph infection — Contreras has completed 56 of 124 passes (45 percent) for 885 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
"Throwing is fun," says Contreras, "but our running backs are pretty good. When I have to throw 10 or 11 times a game and everybody's wide open when I do, I'd rather have that than have a tighter window to throw against because that's all they expect."
Contreras played a few series in the early going last season for South Medford in order to get him acclimated to the varsity level — to varying results — then was thrust into the spotlight at halftime of the Black and Blue Game against North Medford when starter Joe McLaughlin was lost to a broken foot.
That experience, along with the natural rivalry between the cross-town schools, makes Friday night's game at Spiegelberg Stadium that much bigger for Contreras. Primarily a pocket passer, he came in and steered the Panthers to 17 second-half points by completing 4 of 7 passes for 55 yards in the 38-3 victory.
"It's pretty special," Contreras says of the upcoming game. "Last year I know I was really nervous at halftime when Bill told me, 'You're in.' Now, with the games I've played since then and the confidence I've gotten, I know it's going to be a fun game. I'm still nervous, of course, they're a good team and leading our conference, but I'm ready."
Contreras guided the Panthers to a 2-1 record as a starter after the Tornado game — including a playoff victory — and showed he has the capacity for any game plan by throwing for 258 yards twice in that span.
And although South Medford enters the 28th Black and Blue Game with a 2-5 overall record and 2-3 mark in the Southwest Conference, Contreras has definitely held up his end of the bargain thus far. The Panthers squandered three fourth-quarter leads in losing their first three games.
"You have to remember the thing about Craig is he's really only played about 10 games as a quarterback," says Singler. "Craig really is still very raw as a quarterback so from that standpoint, I'm extremely pleased how he's handled himself this year. He's putting us in position to where we've been ahead in the games we lost early on. He's done a great job for us and he's continuing to grow as a quarterback every day. He's only going to get better."
The fact that Contreras will even be on the field for Friday's game is a victory in itself after battling a staph infection over the last two weeks. He discovered a bump on his left leg prior to South's game against Roseburg, believed the pain in his leg to be a pulled hamstring and still went out and helped guide his team to a 30-21 win over the previously undefeated Indians.
"The pain just got worse and then on the Monday after that I went to the doctor because I could barely walk or sit down," says Contreras, who also averages 43.5 yards per punt.
When the term MRSA was dropped as a potential concern, he could only scratch his head.
"I was like, 'What does that mean? Is that bad?'" he says with a laugh.
MRSA infections are caused by a strain of staph bacteria that's become resistant to antibiotics normally used to treat ordinary staph infections. MRSA, however, is not resistant to every antibiotic and Contreras' quick action and treatment plan of antibiotics and ointment for the area have apparently staved off a potentially serious issue.
"Some people have it and they're out for about three weeks but if you take the antibiotics and put the ointment on it then they said I could be fine," he says. "I did that and they said I recovered more quickly than usual."
He missed school all last week and said his infection cleared prior to the Panthers' game against Grants Pass but there was concern of him getting hit and developing another infected lump that would have to be surgically removed.
"That was hard not playing last Friday but Nate (Brammer) stepped in and did fine, obviously," Contreras says of the overtime thriller. "That was a good comeback for us, but they just got us on that last two-point conversion."
And while every quarterback wants to win, Contreras says there's a learning experience in every situation.
"I think those tough losses we've had will kinda help us in the playoffs," he says. "If it's ever close, we know how to play in close games and I think we have the team now that can get it done."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry