It’s the elephant in the room, and the South Medford Panthers aren’t short-sighted enough to look past it.
In more than enough ways, last season was a triumphant success for the program and its players.
South Medford made an undefeated run to its second Southwest Conference title since the league was formed in 2006 — Sheldon is the only other school to win multiple SWC titles — and saw several players turn in incredible performances throughout the season.
But when you get upset in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs with a 90-yard touchdown reception on a fourth-and-20 play by the No. 30 seed, that’s a sting that will linger.
“Last year was a sad ending to a great year,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler. “It’s always sad when you lose your last game, but when it’s your first playoff game, it’s worse. But you’ve got to give Newberg all the credit.”
The “craziest finish to any game I’ve seen,” according to Singler, actually marked a fourth straight year the Panthers were eliminated in the first round.
This time, however, the coach said he’s seen real positives come from such a negative.
“I think it’s motivated them,” said Singler. “Our weight room effort has been the best in the 20 years I’ve been here. Those guys have been in there lifting and running like crazy with (strength and conditioning coach) Noah Berman. He’s just done a great job with them.”
“It’s just what it is,” Singler added of the carryover from last year’s stunning 26-23 loss to Newberg, “but I think it’s going to make us a tougher team mentally, to be honest. And if you’re going to lose a game like that with a group like we have, you want to lose a game like that when they’re juniors and not seniors. They don’t want to experience that again.”
On paper, South Medford has plenty to feel good about with a talented roster that’s long on senior experience and athleticism.
Senior receiver Chase Cota has led the SWC in receiving the past two seasons and is one of the top recruits in Oregon with offers from throughout the Pac-12 Conference to as far away as Alabama and Notre Dame.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder hauled in 40 passes for 729 yards and 10 TDs last season, and already holds South Medford’s single-game record with 282 yards receiving on 10 catches as a sophomore against Sheldon.
While Cota may be the most ballyhooed prospect coming out of South Medford since Kyle Singler — and deservedly so — the Panther who may have had the biggest impact on the team’s success one year ago was fellow senior Jaylin Parnell.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder pulled off a rare feat, earning SWC player of the year honors on offense and defense after serving as South’s leading tackler and the SWC’s leading rusher with 1,031 yards and 10 TDs on 131 carries during the regular season.
Parnell shared SWC offensive player of the year honors with quarterback Robbie Patterson, who enters his third season as a starter having passed for 1,880 yards with 23 TDs and three interceptions on 63-percent efficiency during the 2016 regular season.
Patterson already owns a share of a single-game school record with Boomer Marshall after throwing six TD passes against Roseburg two years ago.
And were it not for a nagging leg injury, senior Kaleb Franklin (5-10, 170) might have threatened Cota as the top SWC receiver. Franklin still finished with 450 yards and five scores on 35 catches while also averaging 7.2 yards per carry as a wild-card option in the Panthers’ arsenal.
Third-year starting center Brandon Ditty joined Cota and Parnell as the only players to earn first-team all-SWC honors on both sides of the ball, and helps set the tone in the trenches with returning senior standouts Michael Cormier and Martin Laupola.
Senior Jaalen Owens showed signs of being a breakout receiver last year as a complement to Cota and Franklin and also provides the Panthers a legitimate weapon as a place-kicker, while junior Trent DeBoer will be another one to watch on the perimeter.
Defensively, linebackers Evan Dallas and Trent Snyder bring a workhorse mentality to the mix to mesh nicely with Parnell and Laupola and rising junior Cole Boster, while an already deep secondary should only get better with increased playing time from playmaking senior Josiah Johnson.
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry