It was worth the wait for the South Medford boys soccer team.

It was worth the wait for the South Medford boys soccer team.

The fifth-ranked Panthers earned their first playoff win since 2003 on Thursday night against West Salem — and had to wait until nearly the very end of the match to clinch it.

Senior midfielder Matt Mendoza scored with 2 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in regulation on a diving header following a powerful throw-in from senior forward Logan Warr as South Medford (12-2-1) defeated West Salem 1-0 at Spiegelberg Stadium in a first-round Class 6A playoff match.

"Once I got it, I was just overwhelmed with joy, especially with it being in the last minutes," Mendoza said. "It's my senior year, I've been waiting four years for this. We've finally been able to get over the hump."

Nothing came easily for South Medford, the No. 1 seed from the Southwest Conference, against the Central Valley Conference's No. 4 seed.

The teams played an even first half and while the Panthers were on the offensive attack the majority of the second half, West Salem (5-6-4) still managed a few quality opportunities.

Amidst the celebration, and consequential sigh of relief, on the Panthers' sideline as the clock ticked to zero, South Medford coach Dave Kaufman excitedly said, "Don't do that to me."

"Those are hard on the old heart," Kaufman said of the late-game dramatics. "I'm kind of a miserable old cuss when it comes to that point in the game. A lot of times I don't even watch. I just turn and listen to the crowd. (West Salem) gave us a great fight and had us on the ropes a couple of times. They provide some matchups that are difficult because they have some very creative players."

The Titans had five shots on goal to three for South Medford in the first half and threatened twice midway through the second half.

West Salem's best chance came when Marcos Cuellar fielded a free kick that skipped through multiple defenders and found himself with a one-on-one with South Medford goalkeeper Skyler Holt. Cuellar attempted a shot but a diving Holt deflected the ball back to Cuellar, who lofted another shot that went over the goal in the 59th minute.

"It was a big sigh of relief," Holt said.

Aside from that near scare, South Medford applied the majority of pressure in the second half. The Panthers produced six corner kicks in the first 13 minutes of the half and 10 total.

"It's the law of averages," Kaufman said. "It's safe to say we had the better opportunities. When you are knocking that many times, eventually it will happen."

It eventually did for Mendoza. He personally had two headers near the goal in the second half, one that missed high off a corner kick and another missing to the right on a throw-in from Warr.

The Panthers had five total headers near the goal in the second half, the final one breaking the scoreless tie.

With Mendoza fighting cramps much of the second half, Kaufman elected to keep him on the defensive end even with South on the attack.

But Mendoza gave a thumbs up to the coach with under three minutes to play and charged to the goal where Warr's pass from the right sideline took a bounce in front of the goal, and Mendoza lunged for the ball and put it in the right side of the net.

"I count on him (Warr) to get the ball on my head and he seems to do it every time," Mendoza said. "I could tell we were bound to get one of them during the game."

Said West Salem coach Jason Iverson: "You just make one mistake for one second and it costs you. We had our chances, but didn't finish, and that's kind of how our season has gone."

Thursday's playoff victory is the first for the senior-heavy Panthers squad — and well worth the journey to get it.

South Medford plays Saturday's winner between West Linn and Centennial next Tuesday.

"These are first time experiences for these guys," Kaufman said. "This is going to be a pivotal win for us. I have a good feeling from here on."

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com