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CENTRAL POINT — Feel-good moments have been scarce for South Medford's football team this year. The Panthers have dealt with many key injuries and several close losses.
All that changed on Friday night.
South downed Crater, 24-15, in Southwest Conference action at Dutch Meyer Field to clinch an automatic Class 6A state playoff berth and gain some mojo heading into the postseason.
The Panthers (3-6, 3-4 SWC) will next play Nov. 8, while the Comets (2-7, 2-5) must compete in a play-in contest next Friday.
"These kids, they needed something like this," South Medford head coach Bill Singler said. "We have had four tough losses this year. You know, all were close games, and we lost them all in the fourth quarter by a touchdown or less. We needed something good to happen."
The high-powered Comets entered averaging 423 yards and 31 points but were held to 326 yards. Crater quarterback Ty Fox finished with 237 passing yards (he was 21-of-39), but the senior threw three interceptions.
Junior running back Josh Hall fueled South's well-balanced offense, rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. The Panthers had 157 yards on the ground and quarterback Craig Contreras passed for 190 more in efficient fashion (17-of-24 with one interception).
Crater got off to a fine start, but it didn't last.
Fox's 15-yard touchdown run — set up by a Tanner Ryerson interception — capped a nine-play, 90-yard drive for the Comets, who took a 7-0 lead with 8:12 to go in the first quarter.
Hall answered with 4:32 remaining with his 3-yard scoring run. His 7-yard TD sprint at the 10:38 mark in the second period gave the Panthers a 14-7 advantage.
"Our line was doing a really good job blocking, so I just followed my guys and got as far and went as hard as I could," Hall said. "Guys like Will Cooney and Cesar Cabrera and a few others."
Crater had its chance to even the game after Fox connected with Matt Dent on a stunning 33-yard pass to South Medford's 17-yard line. But a few plays later, Dylan Morgan couldn't quite get his hands on a fourth-and-three toss from Fox in the end zone.
Riley Williams' 20-yard field goal made it 17-7 South at halftime, when Hall already had 87 yards on 21 carries.
"Nobody knows much about him," Singler said of Hall. "He is kind of unheralded. He doesn't say much but you know he is a tough runner. He just runs tough inside the tackles."
Kory Bennett's 61-yard punt return set up a 7-yard TD strike from Fox to Morgan with 9:40 left in the third quarter.
A few minutes later, Fox was picked off by Brady Breeze, whose 30-yard return set the stage for Anthony Gomez's 2-yard scoring plunge. That touchdown put South ahead, 24-13.
Fox threw his third interception on the following possession and Bennett fumbled a couple minutes later around the South Medford 6, spoiling a hopeful drive. Any chance of a comeback disappeared when Crater failed to gain a first down on fourth-and-two at the South Medford 41. Carlos Higuera fought for 1 yard before being met by linebacker Kevin Laupola.
"I just thought we had opportunities and we stalled out in the red zone and goal-line area," Crater head coach John Beck said. "It wasn't anything they were doing, it was things we weren't doing." The Panthers, with about six minutes left, pieced together a long drive to burn down most of the clock.
"(Defensive coordinator) Mike Johnston and the defensive staff did a great job covering the receivers," Singler said. "I think we played a little man underneath and forced their hand some. That is tough to throw in when you are double-covered."
Eric Wallan and Ja'lante Applewhite also had interceptions for South.
The Panthers and Roseburg (5-4, 3-4) finished tied for fourth in the SWC, but South's victory over the Indians on Oct. 4 gave them the tiebreaking edge. Crater, which was seeking its third straight win, will have a play-in game next Friday against an opponent to be determined.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com