It’s been said there’s a first time for everything.
For those in the South Medford football program, the hope is that moment comes Friday night when the fifth-seeded Panthers travel to No. 4 West Salem for the quarterfinal round of the Class 6A football state playoffs.
And while a first trip to the state semifinals in program history may be the hope, the expectation remains the same among the South Medford faithful, nothing worth having ever comes easy.
“In life you get one chance at a lot of things and we get one chance here to maybe break through,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler, “but we know it’s going to be real hard so we know we have to keep ourselves focused and work real hard at it.”
“West Salem’s a very talented team and a very well-coached team,” he added. “We know we have our hands full but I think they know they have their hands full, too. If we play well and they play well, it should be a heckuva battle.”
That’s entirely the attitude coming out of the Titans’ camp, where head coach Shawn Stanley is seeking to guide his team back to the semifinals for the second time in four years.
Both teams enter the contest with 10-1 records, well-earned conference championships under their belts and a hearty respect for what the other brings to the table.
“This is the quarterfinals,” noted Stanley, “teams with major cracks in their surface are already putting away their gear. If you look at the rest of the bracket, no team on there has an easy one.”
Whoever wins Friday’s matchup will next play the winner of a quarterfinal clash between ninth-seeded Jesuit and No. 1 Lake Oswego. In other quarterfinals, No. 6 Tigard is at No. 3 West Linn and No. 10 Central Catholic is at No. 2 Clackamas.
“The semis the last 10-15 years have been basically relegated to the Jesuits, the Central Catholics, to the Sheldons and the LOs and now to the West Linns,” said Singler. “But the winner of this game is going to break through and get to the semis and that’s a real accomplishment.”
In order to get to that point, both teams expect to lean on what got them to this level: all-out hustle, a ball-controlling ground offensive, stifling defense and a team-first attitude prevalent throughout their ranks.
“They’re very fast and athletic and their linemen are huge,” said South Medford senior linebacker Evan Dallas. “They just have so many great players, we just have to play at our best and be in the right place at the right time and continue to trust each other.”
“We’re just a group of brothers that love playing football together,” added Dallas, “so we’re just going to try our best to be the best team we can be.”
The same belief rings true in Salem.
“At this point of the season we’re not going to try to change who we are and they’re not going to change who they are to play West Salem,” said Stanley. “I think the team that executes and avoids self-inflicted wounds like turnovers and penalties will put themselves in the best position.”
“(The Panthers) execute so well and don’t make mistakes,” he added, “I think the margin this week is small.”
The margin was also small last week for the Titans, who rallied in the final six minutes with 13 straight points to pull away from Grant for a 33-24 triumph. Short of a 41-7 setback in Week 3 at Sheldon, that marked the first time the Greater Valley Conference champions have been challenged as late as the fourth quarter this season.
“It was fun last week to be challenged and rise to the occasion,” said Stanley, “and hopefully we can rise to the occasion again this Friday.”
Leading the charge for a West Salem team averaging 256 yards per game on the ground and 398 overall has been senior running back Jacob Denning. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound standout opened the season as a wide receiver but due to an early injury to returning senior Noah Whitaker, Denning has stepped up to contribute 1,501 yards and 24 touchdowns on 150 carries.
“He took the ball and literally ran with it and never looked back,” said Stanley. “He’s a pretty rare combination of someone who runs extremely hard, has great vision and has been able to finish runs. He’s always been quick but, against some great athletes, he’s been able to finish some runs with his speed. He hasn’t been caught from behind very often but he’s a north and south guy ... he’s not going to do a lot of running sideways.”
Complementing Denning has been senior quarterback Grant Thies, who has completed 80 of 142 passes for 1,522 yards, 18 TDs and six interceptions, and junior receiver Anthony Gould, who is a multi-dimensional threat. At 5-10 and 175 pounds with sprinter’s speed, Gould has hauled in 34 passes for 698 yards and nine TDs and run 18 times for 291 yards and five scores.
“Both teams have big-play capability and you’ve got to kind of harness that, you can’t let it get away from you,” said Singler.
Paving the way for West Salem is an offensive line that on average stands 6-3 and 257 pounds. Defensively, the Titans tallied 25 sacks in the regular season and have been anchored by linemen Alex Hurlburt and Jake Yates, linebackers Micah Pugh and Ryan Baxter and defensive backs Stanley Green and Zach Robertson.
“I think they’ve got eight or nine guys that are 245 (pounds) or more on their roster and we have like, one,” Singler said with a laugh. “So their size is a concern and they’ve certainly played well with those guys up front on both sides of the ball.”
The reigning two-time Southwest Conference champions have found themselves on the short end of most height and weight comparisons this year and managed to hold their own to the tune of 387 yards of total offense per game — 230 on the ground — against 254 yards allowed in total defense with a plus-18 turnover ratio.
“When it comes down to the fourth quarter and the game’s on the line, it’s all about will and how strong you are and how much you want the win,” said Dallas. “I think we have that 100 percent.”
South Medford senior running back Jaylin Parnell has averaged 7 yards per carry while amassing 1,182 yards and 21 TDs on the ground, with considerable help from junior Terrence Butler (620 yards, 11 TDs) and senior Trent Snyder (247 yards, three TDs).
Parnell and Butler each eclipsed 100 yards rushing in last week’s 42-14 win over Lincoln, while Snyder scored twice and wasn’t far off at 89 yards in only seven carries.
Guiding the Panthers in his third season behind center has been senior quarterback Robbie Patterson, who has completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts for 1,724 yards, 22 TDs and four interceptions.
Chase Cota leads South Medford with 658 yards and 12 scores on 37 catches but fellow senior Jaalen Owens (24 catches, 443 yards, six TDs) gives the Panthers a true complement as a game-breaker on the perimeter at 18.5 yards per catch.
“Offensively they can pound the ball and are tough to defend,” said Stanley. “Their quarterback is good and can make plays with his feet and has guys who can go get the ball when they put it in the air.”
As for some narratives concerning whether South Medford possibly should be the No. 4 seed through the state’s power rankings and therefore able to host Friday’s game instead of West Salem, Singler isn’t buying into any of that talk.
For the Panthers, who will be making their fourth appearance in the quarterfinals after also going in 2002, 2004 and 2008, simply being in this spot is a good thing and they’re willing to play the game wherever it may be.
“We’ve always kind of prided ourselves on playing well on the road so from that standpoint, we know how to travel and we travel a lot,” said Singler. “This is probably the 30th-plus time that we’ve made a trip to Salem or north since 2002 so, from that standpoint, we know how to do it. Sure it would be nice to play at home but we have won at West Salem and it doesn’t bother us to be on the road.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry