Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
For South Medford junior Brittany Jensen, winning takes precedence over everything else.
It's been that way since she can recall and is completely ingrained in who she is as a soccer player for the Panthers.
"I've always been really competitive growing up with my two brothers," says the 16-year-old forward. "Everything we do, I've always strived to beat them and I think that's played a huge role for me in soccer. I just like the feeling of winning, and feeling really good about what I did out there after leaving everything on the field."
That winning feeling, as well as one of personal accomplishment, has been there quite a bit this season for a South Medford team that has steadily improved under the guidance of head coach Chris Hollewijn and assistant coach Aly Hollewijn.
The Southern Oregon Hybrid co-champion Panthers (10-3-1) open the Class 6A girls soccer state playoffs at home against Thurston (8-4-2) at 5 p.m. Saturday, and Jensen has played a key role in making that happen with a team-best 15 goals to go with six assists.
"She's a very important player for us," says Chris Hollewijn, the SOH's coach of the year. "She's very dynamic, and to me it all starts with her work rate. She has high standards in terms of fitness and overall preparation. She's very competitive and all of that combines to make her a force out there."
In other playoff openers Saturday, North Medford plays host to St. Mary's Academy at 3 p.m. at U.S. Cellular Community Park while Grants Pass is at Jesuit and Roseburg is at Lincoln.
Jensen began playing soccer even before she entered kindergarten — a product of wanting to be like older brother Nathan — and it didn't take long before she discovered a knack for the sport.
It also didn't take long to discover what she liked most about soccer.
"I just kinda like the feeling you get when you see the ball hit the back of the net," she admits. "It's kind of a cool feeling. It also feels good when you're running past defenders."
Jensen has put all those skills to good use since moving up from the junior varsity level for the state playoffs as a freshman and gradually developed into an integral playmaker for a deep but young Panther team.
"We have a lot of players that can step up and contribute, but in terms of productivity, you can't argue with the amount of goals and assists she's had," says Hollewijn. "Even if she's not scoring or getting assists, she's creating chances in different ways by maybe drawing a defender away from someone else."
With considerable attention paid to Jensen, sophomore Franny Gomez has capitalized with 12 goals while sophomore Haylie Durant has 11 assists entering the playoffs for a Panther team that carries no seniors. Hannah Kapple, Erin Riley, Sierra Christopher, Montana Logue, Renae Nisbet and Anna Rose also apply pressure on opposing defenses.
"The feeling of scoring is really good but I love supporting my teammates and knowing that I helped them score, too," says Jensen, who boasts a 3.8 grade-point average. "I just really try to focus a lot on us playing as a team and combining passes and looking for as many options to score as we can. I like playing as a team and having that family bond that we have."
It helps that there are so many quality options surrounding her.
"That is one of our strengths," says Jensen, "we are really creative up top because we have so many attackers who can do so much on the field. It throws the defense off, and when we're moving around constantly with different people it helps give us more chances at the goal."
That said, often the best chance at the goal is when the 5-foot-7 standout is in relentless pursuit of the ball.
"Soccer is a great game because it takes all types of players," says Hollewijn, "but she's one of those who just wants to go at you. She's going straight for the throat and there's not a lot of dancing around, it's not like she's indecisive at all. When she's got the ball, she's got one thing on her mind and that's how she's going to get past someone to get toward the goal."
Each game has posed a different set of challenges for Jensen, who now routinely shadow her every move. Still, she's found a way to contribute.
"It's hard to play like that with somebody constantly on you but that's how it's been for a lot of the games in the second half of the season," she admits. "I usually just keep playing how I've been playing and maybe try to dribble through them or hopefully open something up for my teammates."
One aspect of Jensen's game Hollewijn appreciates is that, no matter how the game has played out, she keeps her game in high gear until the final horn.
"You have to watch her for a variety of different reasons," says the third-year head coach. "Some games she's in she's quiet but then she'll pop up at the right moment and come up with the big play. And in other games she's busy with the ball and driving defenses crazy."
Either method will be a welcome sight when South Medford opens the state playoffs against defending Class 6A state champion Thurston, which placed fourth in Special District 2 and played to a scoreless tie with SOH co-champion North Medford earlier this season.
"That is a lot of pressure thrown out playing against the defending state champion," says Jensen, "but we feel like if we play our game then we should have a chance."
In the past two seasons, the Panthers have been unable to get out of the first round despite playing sensational matches. In 2011, Jensen was pulled up from the JV and set up the equalizing goal that sent South Medford into overtime at Grant High, which ultimately prevailed 3-2 in overtime. Last year, the Panthers played 100 scoreless minutes at Lincoln before losing 1-0 when the Cardinals held a 3-2 advantage on penalty kicks in the shootout.
"This year it's a different experience for us and the girls and a great one at that because we get to build off hosting in the first round," says Hollewijn. "We are totally excited about where we're at but we're not taking anything for granted. Thurston returns several players who know what it takes to get to that next level and that's what we're learning how to do now. Each year we've climbed in the state rankings and we're just hoping to keep making steps in the right direction."
And with Jensen taking the lead, anything seems possible for the Panthers.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry