One year ago, South Medford’s football team served as a cautionary tale to the rest of the state.
The fifth-seeded Panthers certainly want to change that narrative this time around.
After repeating as Southwest Conference champions, South Medford will look to take that first step Friday when it opens the Class 6A state playoffs against Gresham at Spiegelberg Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Only a year ago, the Panthers took a No. 3 seed into the first round and wound up on the wrong end of one of the biggest upsets in playoff history in a 26-23 loss to 30th-seeded Newberg.
South Medford’s offseason was built around that disappointing moment and trying to avoid a repeat in 2017, and the Panthers (8-1) are giving the 28th-seeded Gophers (4-4) their due.
“We just want to play this like it’s our last week,” said South Medford senior lineman Michael Cormier. “We all thought we could just look past Newberg last year and we’d be playing Tigard the next week, but this year we haven’t looked at the bracket. We’re just looking at Gresham, nobody’s talking about anything else. We’re just looking at them and thinking about them.”
In Friday’s other 6A playoff action, No. 24 North Medford travels to ninth-seeded Jesuit and No. 19 Grants Pass plays at No. 14 McNary.
Crater, the No. 11 seed in 5A, has a rematch Friday at No. 6 seed South Albany, while sixth-seeded Phoenix opens the 4A playoffs at home against No. 11 La Grande.
On Saturday in 3A action, fourth-seeded Cascade Christian will entertain No. 13 Willamina at 1 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium.
Gresham finished fifth in the Mt. Hood Conference and enters the state playoffs having lost four of its last five games. The Gophers are making their first playoff appearance since 2014 and are led by senior quarterback Jake Biesterfeld and junior running back Charles Ndayizeye.
In its season opener, Gresham held off Roseburg of the SWC for a 21-14 victory, but the Gophers were also limited to eight points or less in all four of their losses against formidable foes Oregon City, Clackamas, Barlow and Central Catholic.
For South Medford, 24 seniors set the tone for one of the leading contenders in the 6A title chase. With wins over Sheldon, South Salem, Grants Pass and Wilsonville to go with a narrow loss at West Linn, the Panthers have done well to not get caught up in all their hype this season.
“I think the biggest difference is (South Medford head coach Bill Singler) always talks about climbing the mountain and keeping going until we reach the top of the mountain,” said Panthers senior lineman Brandon Ditty. “I feel like last year when we beat Sheldon and won the conference, that was the top of the mountain for us. This year it’s a completely new season and we’re hungry to go on to the playoffs and see how far we can go. The top of the mountain is different for us this year.”
Senior quarterback Robbie Patterson has led the way with his efficient play all season, guiding South Medford’s offense to 367 yards and 41 points per game. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound three-year starter has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,469 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Chief among a deep receiving corps have been seniors Chase Cota (30 catches, 545 yards, nine TDs) and Jaalen Owens (22 catches, 390 yards, six TDs), while do-it-all senior tailback Jaylin Parnell has averaged 6.7 yards per carry to total 923 yards and 17 rushing TDs with 22 receptions for 227 yards and three scores.
Defensively, the Panthers proved to be the stingiest group in the SWC by allowing only 253 yards and 12 points per game. Linebackers Trent Snyder, Evan Dallas, Cole Boster and Parnell have anchored an effort that has been equally adept in slowing opposing rushing and passing attacks.
NORTH MEDFORD AT JESUIT: North Medford flexed its muscle last week with 333 yards rushing in nabbing the fourth automatic playoff berth out of the SWC, but the challenge heightens this week against a Jesuit squad that went undefeated in the Metro League.
Under the direction of head coach Ken Potter, who earned his 300th coaching victory last week, the Crusaders (8-1) have allowed 16.4 points per game and feature a dynamic attack led by senior running back Trey Lowe and junior quarterback Will Spitznagel, who has passed for 1,585 yards and 22 TDs.
North Medford’s ground game has reached a new level in recent weeks with the addition of junior Eli Spence to complement senior Isaac Manuel, who has run for 657 yards and three TDs. Spence has quickly amassed 307 yards rushing after averaging 10 yards per carry, and also finished second in SWC receiving with 633 yards and five TDs on 33 catches.
Black Tornado senior QB Josh Robbins has had less of a load to shoulder in recent weeks but has passed for 1,531 yards with 16 TDs and 16 interceptions. Senior Tyler Evans has been a prime target with 27 catches for 379 yards and eight scores.
CRATER AT SOUTH ALBANY: Crater used three touchdowns in the fourth quarter by sophomore running back Gavin Acrey to win a Week 2 matchup at South Albany, 34-21, but Acrey won’t be available due to injury in the rematch and the Comets will need to find another spark.
Crater led 14-0 at halftime the first time around but had to overcome three interceptions and 11 penalties to stave off a rally by South Albany. Neither team was very efficient in the passing game, with each around 75 yards and a 30-percent completion rate.
South Albany QB Jake Costello caught Crescent Valley for a couple big plays last week in an upset victory, connecting with Eli Nafziger for 52- and 69-yard TD passes. Nafziger also had an interception return for a score in the 21-7 win. Ray Wilson and Costello have paced the running attack.
For the Comets, sophomore QB Trever Davis has shown steady improvement in head coach Randy Waite’s first season and has enjoyed a consistent running attack and variety of receivers to propel Crater to 340 yards of total offense per game.
Davis has passed for 1,467 yards, 12 TDs and 14 interceptions — most of the miscues coming early in the season — to go with 269 yards rushing and eight scores. Senior Cade Weaver has run for 603 yards and nine scores, while Bailee Robles (33 catches, 425 yards, three TDs) and Jesse Fisher (24 catches, 306 yards, three TDs) have been prime targets.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry