South Medford and Grants Pass have been in this position before, and it’s the Panthers’ hope that Friday’s outcome is a similar one to a year ago as they forged their way to a Southwest Conference football championship.
Both teams stood 4-1 overall, with the Cavemen coming off a crushing loss to Sprague, when they met a year ago in Grants Pass. The end result was a hard-fought 23-7 win by the Panthers that snapped a three-game losing streak in the series.
The same scenario stands this time around for Friday’s 7 p.m. homecoming game at Spiegelberg Stadium, and South Medford is preparing for the Cavemen to do everything they can to get back on track.
“They bring that spirit anytime we play them,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler, “so we expect that and we’ll be ready.”
“It was a knockdown dragout fight last time and I expect the same thing this week,” he added. “That’s the kind of games we play against them anyway, there’s never really any runaways, usually it’s a pretty hard-fought game.”
The rivalry had been mostly one-sided until recently, with South Medford (4-1, 2-0 SWC) winning 12 of 13 meetings against Grants Pass (4-1, 2-0) until the Cavemen finally broke through in 2013 to begin their winning streak.
In other games of local interest Friday, North Medford is at Roseburg and, at the Class 5A level, Crater plays host to No. 9 Thurston and Eagle Point is at Ashland. In a top-10 3A battle, Cascade Christian will take on Santiam Christian at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
Grants Pass expects to be particularly eager to get on the field again after struggling last week against Sprague, when the Cavemen were outgained in total yards (638-229) and lost 54-27.
In that contest, SWC-leading rusher Vincent Washington was limited to a season-low 42 yards on 10 carries but scored one of his two touchdowns on a 91-yard kickoff return. The 5-foot-8, 160-pound Washington has engineered GP’s success all season, with twice as many carries as most running backs in the league. He’s up to 867 yards and 13 TDs on 118 carries, with the Cavemen averaging 250 of their SWC-best 396 yards of total offense on the ground.
“They’re explosive with Washington,” said Singler, “and they’ve run the ball well the last few years anyway, that’s what they like to do.”
“We’ve got to show up up front this week because we’re going to get tested just like South Salem,” added the coach. “(Grants Pass) is going to want to run the ball so we’re going to have to bring the physicality this week. We just can’t let them get into a groove running the football.”
Thanks to the efforts of defensive linemen Cole Schumack, Sam Willis and Nate Eli, the Panthers have limited opponents to about 103 yards rushing and 261 yards overall thus far. The presence of standout linebackers Jaylin Parnell, Trent Snyder, Evan Dallas and Cole Boster has only served to strengthen that initial wave of defense.
Grants Pass junior QB Blain Hobbs has sprinter’s speed and a solid handle on the offensive game plan for head coach John Musser. Hobbs has rushed for 154 yards and two scores while also completing 54 of 96 passes for 628 yards, seven TDs and six interceptions. At 6-6, senior Tayler Phillips provides a prime target with 21 catches for 356 yards and four scores, and has been complemented by junior Korbin Lopez and senior Niko Phillips.
South Medford is coming off a sensational performance spearheaded by senior QB Robbie Patterson, who was extremely efficient in passing for five TDs during a 55-6 rout of North Medford. The 5-11, 195-pounder has completed 69 of 101 passes for 1,058 yards, 16 TDs and three interceptions.
“We ask a lot of our quarterbacks, we always have,” said Singler, “and Robbie’s worked really hard to have a great senior year. If you look at how he’s managed our football team … you can’t ask much more from a quarterback in that regard. He’s gotten us out of bad things and into better things. Having that kind of guy is a great security blanket for a head coach because he just understands the offense as well as I do and he kind of takes it to another level on the field.”
Patterson has been aided by an offensive line that has seen pieces move in and out due to injury but still remained sturdy. The return of all-SWC senior lineman Brandon Ditty last week gave the resilient group a boost.
Parnell has also been a big weapon through the air and on the ground, covering 391 yards with six TDs on 63 carries to go with 174 yards and three scores on 14 catches. Last year, Parnell helped the team churn out a win over GP with 169 yards on 20 carries.
NORTH MEDFORD AT ROSEBURG: While a Black and Blue Game win over South Medford would’ve been a feather in North Medford’s cap last week, the Black Tornado remains in position for one of the SWC’s four automatic state playoff berths should it be able to take care of business at Finlay Field.
“This is a big game for us if we want to have any shot at those kind of aspirations,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team is tied for fourth at 1-2 in SWC play with Roseburg and Willamette.
North Medford (1-4) will be without the services of senior tailback/safety Harley Robinson, who dislocated his elbow in the first quarter last week, as well as senior lineman Nicholas Winetrout, who was ejected in the fourth quarter after an unsportsmanlike penalty and must sit out one game.
Neither team has shown a level of consistent play through four quarters this season but each expects to be looking at this game as a huge opportunity to kickstart a late-season surge. Turnovers have plagued both teams, with Roseburg QB Collin Warmouth intercepted five times last week while North QB Josh Robbins was picked off four times in a game that saw the Tornado turn the ball over seven times overall.
“We just have to make sure we’re not making mistakes,” said Mitchell. “I’m not nearly as worried about Roseburg as I am about us. We’ve got to start there and then move forward.”
Mitchell said North will try to simplify things moving forward, and hope to build on the boost to the running game provided by senior Isaac Manuel and junior Eli Spence. Sophomore Josh Baptiste will be tasked with stepping up to fill Robinson’s shoes on both sides of the ball.
Spence also ranks third in the SWC with 399 yards and four TDs on 22 catches.
Roseburg sophomore Doran Gillespie has been a bright spot for the Indians (2-3) thus far, rushing 97 times for 362 yards and three TDs, while Garrett Russell has been the team’s top perimeter threat and junior Zack Mandera is a driving force on a defense that is allowing only 18 points per game.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry