A preseason article on South Medford’s football team called Jaalen Owens “the best receiver you’ve never heard of.”
And he hated that.
In fact, it still riles him up.
“That just got on my nerves a lot, I didn’t like it,” said Owens, bringing it up on his own as he sat calmly on a bench at Spiegelberg Stadium. “That drove me crazy. I was like, that’s just something that’s going to push me even more because I hated that.”
For someone as competitive as the 6-foot-1, 165-pound senior, it’s not like he needed any extra motivation.
“I’m pretty driven by competition,” admits the 17-year-old. “I don’t like losing ever, even to teammates. If I lose, I’m going to push myself even harder the next time and try not to lose again.”
Owens is a three-sport standout when you include his exploits in baseball and basketball, and he’s long had the support and appreciation of his teammates, coaches and Panther fans. He was a first-team all-Southwest Conference pick as placekicker last year and a second-team receiver after hauling in 13 passes for 257 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season.
“I’ve been so excited for him and his development the last couple years,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “He really put in a great job this summer getting himself prepared to play. He has mentally prepared himself to have a great senior year and you can see it already, he’s played well the last two games on both sides of the ball.”
Through two weeks for the fourth-ranked Panthers (1-1), Owens is tied for second place in SWC receiving with 184 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. He’s also third in overall scoring with 19 points.
Owens had a breakout performance of sorts last week in West Linn when he torched the top-ranked Lions with five catches for 145 yards and a 75-yard TD reception from Robbie Patterson.
“It felt super-good just to be able to catch a couple passes from Robbie and get probably my best game I’ve ever played in football,” said Owens.
On his game-tying TD in the first quarter, Owens raced right past his defender and was unfazed as the latter clipped him falling down in pursuit down the left sideline.
“It was pretty much a perfect throw,” said Owens, who carries a 3.5 grade-point average. “Robbie threw it right on the numbers and when I caught the ball I could feel (the defender) kind of tugging at me and I almost tripped because his cleat kinda hit my cleat but I still caught the ball and I looked back and I was just like, ‘You’re done.’”
“It was so fun,” he added. “It was probably the best feeling I’ve ever gotten playing football besides maybe my sophomore year catching a pass against North (Medford) for a touchdown. That was a good second.”
On more than one occasion that night Owens stepped up with a big gainer to keep possession for the Panthers, and it was of no surprise to Singler and company on the sidelines.
“He really takes pride on catching the football and consistently catching the ball,” said Singler, “and we trust him. He’s a guy you can go to and know that you’re going to get productivity. He’s just a joy to coach because he’s very serious about what he does and he’s very coachable.”
Owens would be a star receiver on just about any team, but the presence of elite senior receiver Chase Cota — who holds scholarship offers from schools throughout the Pac-12 Conference to places like Notre Dame and Alabama — and versatile senior playmaker Kaleb Franklin have him more under the radar than he deserves.
However, their presence does create a few more openings than Owens might have otherwise.
“It helps me a lot because most of the time they’ll try to double up Chase,” Owens said of opposing defenses, “and if they do, that just takes one less defender off of me. It’s easier to get open with one less defender, obviously.”
And as a diehard competitor, having Cota and Franklin and even up-and-coming receivers like junior Trent DeBoer on the same field with him every day provides even more motivation for Owens.
“It really just pushes me to do a lot better than they do,” said Owens. “Just to be on the same field as Chase, I know he’s a high school student just like me, but he has multiple (Division I) offers and I don’t have any so I just have to push myself harder than he does. I just try to beat everybody in everything just to push myself harder than even they push themselves.”
And that push is considerable with this South Medford group, which carries lofty expectations thanks to its talent-rich lineup.
“I love being part of this team because there are so many people that help push you,” said Owens. “It’s not like you have to push yourself, there’s Jaylin Parnell who’s always getting on your case about trying hard in everything and Robbie saying for you to run harder on your routes because he knows you can run harder.”
“When Chase went to (Nike’s The Opening),” he added, “he came back and told us a whole bunch of stuff and I was like, ‘Well that makes sense, yeah we should do that.’ It pretty much makes the game easier listening to all those guys with how much experience they have.”
These days, however, the only experience Owens is interested in is finding his team ahead each Friday once the final horn is blown.
“I just love winning and I don’t like losing,” he said. “If I can do whatever I can do to make my team win, I will do that. I don’t like losing, I never have.”
And as for the notion of being the best receiver you’ve never heard of?
“I don’t think they know anything about me,” said Owens with a sly smile. “I think they’re going to by the end of the season.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry