South Medford could be one of the most improved high school football teams in the state this season.

South Medford could be one of the most improved high school football teams in the state this season.

The Panthers, who won just three games a year ago, look like a bona fide state playoff contender and could make some serious noise in the Southwest Conference if senior quarterback A.J. Palazzolo emerges and if a talented but untested group of linemen lives up to its potential.

"This is an unproven football team but also one that's very enticing," says head coach Bill Singler, now in his 10th season leading the Panthers. "We've got the makings of a highly-skilled team on offense and, defensively, we're going to be a lot quicker and more athletic than we were last season."

Palazzolo will trigger an offense that features a dandy set of receivers led by senior Andrew Bennett and juniors Sam McLaughlin and Mitch and E.J. Singler.

Palazzolo's passing statistics were below average in 2006 when he completed 68 of 139 attempts for 815 yards and just three touchdowns, with five interceptions, after taking over for an injured Ben Weaver. But Palazzolo attended five camps over the summer, lifted weights regularly in the offseason and studied the team's playbook to gain a better understanding of Singler's West Coast offense.

Palazzolo's improvement was evident at the Gold Beach team camp in June, Singler says. His passing accuracy and speed afoot were noticeably improved, as was his ability to pick out and hit secondary receivers.

"I figured I had one last season and I committed myself to getting as good as I possibly could," Palazzolo says. "I feel like I've improved in every facet of the game, but especially the mental part. I learned a lot more about how to read coverages and go to the second and third receivers if the primary guy isn't open.

"The other thing is, I'm just a lot more confident player. I kind of got thrown to the wolves last year and things didn't click like I had hoped."

Palazzolo's skill position supporting cast could be among the best in the SWC, if not the state. Wide receiver Mitch Singler, a son of the head coach, ranked second in the SWC in receiving last season with 29 catches for 514 yards and five touchdowns. His cousin — tight end E.J. Singler — ranked eighth with 21 catches for 307 yards and two TDs.

Bennett and McLaughlin played mostly defense a year ago but both figure heavily into the offensive scheme this season.

Junior Patrick Thibeault, meanwhile, led the Panthers in rushing last season with 657 yards on 100 carries and five touchdowns. Thibeault, who has grown to 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds and boasts sprinter's speed, figures to get more heavily involved in the passing game in 2007.

"We've got four receivers who, quite frankly, have to be defended," says coach Singler in pointing to Bennett, McLaughlin and the two younger Singlers. "They're all playmakers, and when you factor in Thibeault, that's quite a group."

Coach Singler is also high on Gavin Millette, a 5-6, 155-pound scatback who shined at the Gold Beach camp when spelling Thibeault.

"He (Millette) opened my eyes," coach Singler says. "He changes direction really well and he's a tough kid. He'll be a nice complement to Thibeault."

South Medford doesn't return a single starter up front, but coach Singler believes that center Eric Henneman, guard Cody Smith and tackle Cody Meuser will anchor a credible line. Steve Adams, a 6-3, 245-pound block of muscle who missed the Gold Beach camp while attending a track clinic, could also emerge.

"The line is the biggest concern of our football team, but those kids really committed themselves to the weight room in the offseason and came together in the summer," coach Singler says. "They played better than expected at the Gold Beach camp.

"Between the varsity and JV kids, we've got close to 20 linemen we think can help us."

As much as the offense figures to blossom, South Medford's defense could be even more formidable.

Cornerback Bennett and linebackers McLaughlin and E.J. Singler are the only returning starters, but several players came on strong during the summer and two promising transfers moved in to beef up an already strong linebacker corps.

The newcomers are Blake Lippert, a 6-0, 210-pound junior from Palm Desert, Calif., and Jake Sartane, a 5-10, 210-pound sophomore from Kitsap, Wash. Both lined up at inside linebacker during the summer and could also help out on the offensive line.

Thibeault, who played exclusively on offense last season, has turned into a stellar defensive end, coach Singler says. Precocious sophomore Brett Wallan figures to start at the other defensive end position.

In the secondary, junior Shawn McLoughlin will start at cornerback opposite Bennett while senior John Adamson, who didn't play last season, is penciled in at safety.

"Our overall team speed on defense is much better than last season," coach Singler says. "And these kids have a toughness and surliness to them that last year's bunch didn't have."

New defensive coordinator Mike Johnston, a former head coach at Eagle Point High, has aided the aggressive approach.

"He (Johnston) brings a toughness quality that his Eagle Point teams always had," coach Singler says. "And that's an ingredient that can help our team get better right away."

With no less than six juniors projected to start on offense and an equal number on defense — with a couple sophomores mixed in — South Medford could be a year away from surfacing as an SWC title contender.

But the Panthers won't look anything like the last-place team they were a year ago.

"There's some excitement in our camp again," says Singler, who has led South Medford to five state playoff appearances in the past seven years. "You can just feel it."

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com