When South Medford opted to forgo playing at home last week for the blue skies up north in Wilsonville, the decision was a fairly easy one and could be made by midweek.
With wildfires raging throughout the state of Oregon now, things aren’t as certain as the Panthers gear up for a game Friday against West Linn in a top-five battle that stands to catch the attention of football fans throughout the state.
“Right now, we’re planning on playing in West Linn,” said South Medford Athletic Director Tim Rupp of the regularly scheduled road game against the defending Class 6A state champions. “We don’t have any other plans in place at this point. West Linn is pretty confident the weather is going to be OK up there and it’s all going to be gone Friday.”
But with the Oregon School Activities Association moving the air quality standard of play to 100 or less this week from the previously set 150 marker — among other more strict parameters — that leaves a tight window for a West Linn area that canceled games Tuesday and was still not under that limit Wednesday night.
“If it doesn’t happen and we can’t play there,” added Rupp, “then the ball’s kind of in their court because it’s their home game. Right now, West Linn isn’t thinking we need to look at any alternate site.”
The hope is a final determination will be made Thursday to give South Medford (1-0) enough time to coordinate its travel plans.
Another hope is that the much-anticipated matchup isn’t canceled outright.
“We want to play the game and the kids want to play and I know the state and OSAA would like to get the games in,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler, “but right now we’re all erring on the side of caution because safety of the students is the first concern.”
“If this was a pro football game, we’d still be playing for sure,” he added, “but we’re dealing with high school kids under the age of 18 and their still developing bodies so you have to be careful.”
Should the game go on as expected, South Medford will have plenty to be careful with against West Linn (1-0). Under the guidance of head coach Chris Miller, the Lions cruised to the state title one year ago and, despite graduating 35 seniors, still look to be title contenders after opening last week with an impressive 42-7 win over Oregon City.
“They’re still the state champion until someone beats them,” said Singler, “and they looked really good against Oregon City, and that’s been a team that’s been one of the better teams in the state historically.”
Junior quarterback Ethan Long has West Linn not skipping a beat despite the graduation of record-setting QB Tim Tawa, and the arrival of Franklin transfer Ahmir McGee only adds to the explosive offensive attack the Lions put forward.
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Long completed 15 of 20 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and one interception last week to go with a short TD run. McGee (5-11, 185) had more than 2,000 all-purpose yards last year for Franklin and gave the Lions a nice boost with 48 yards rushing on eight carries and 59 yards receiving and one TD on four catches.
Senior receiver Qawi Ntsasa caught seven passes for 111 yards and two TDs and junior Dawson Jolley added a TD run to help propel West Linn, which also saw its defense score on an interception return by Luke Hamper and limit Oregon City to 213 total yards.
Senior tight end Keishon Dawkins (6-6, 245) is another potent weapon for West Linn.
“The thing that concerns me is their size,” said Singler. “They are much bigger than we are and have some good kids that can move around a little bit and really play well.”
Making it that much more difficult to prepare for the Lions is the fact that South Medford will have not practiced once on the field this week leading up to the game. The Panthers have been relegated to workouts in a gym and film study, neither truly giving them a chance to work on pass coverages or their own downfield passing game to go with almost no work on special teams.
“You just have to modify and do the best you can,” said Singler, “it’s just the cards that we’re dealt. Obviously you’re not as prepared as you could have been because in football, you really do need to be able to practice outdoors on the field.”
South Medford wasn’t as limited as it prepped for last week’s opener at Wilsonville, which it won 35-7, but Singler hopes his veteran roster will once again be able to handle the adversity and potentially avenge last year’s 42-21 loss to West Linn that saw the Lions take over with a string of 28 straight points.
Senior Chase Cota, the Southwest Conference’s leading receiver the past two years, will certainly draw West Linn’s focus again. With current Washington cornerback Elijah Molden shadowing him for most of last year’s game, Cota was limited to three catches for 35 yards and one TD. In last week’s opener, Cota hauled in a pair of TD passes from Robbie Patterson.
Senior Kaleb Franklin caught seven passes in last year’s game but managed only 28 yards overall. A lightning rod for the Panthers’ wide-open attack, Franklin has the game-breaking ability to counter whatever the defense has in store.
Patterson passed for 204 yards and four TDs last week and fared well in his only game against the Lions by completing 17 of 29 passes for 114 yards, three TDs and one interception, while senior Jaylin Parnell has proven to be a consistent running and receiving threat out of the backfield to go with his linebacker duties.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry