Only two years ago, South Medford gave Clackamas all it could handle before falling short in the opening round of the Class 6A football state playoffs.
On Saturday, the fifth-seeded Panthers will look to finish the job against the No. 2 Cavaliers and, in turn, claim the school’s first state championship and the first large-school crown for a team south of Eugene since 1998.
“We’re excited,” said South Medford senior running back/linebacker Jaylin Parnell. “We’re just ready to play and get after it. At least we know our end date. This is our last week and we’re going to give it our all and leave it all on the field.”
South Medford (12-1) and Clackamas (13-0) will meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Reser Stadium in Corvallis for the first 6A title game to include two public schools since 2012, when Sheldon edged Lake Oswego 13-6. It is the first championship game appearance for both schools, and already a school record for wins in a season for each team.
“In a way, I think it’s kind of unique and refreshing not to have the teams that generally are in the finals,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler, in his 20th season at the school. “You’ve got two underdogs, maybe, or at least two teams that haven’t won a state football championship at the 6A level. We both haven’t played on Saturday, we both haven’t played in the afternoon so both teams have to deal with the same thing. It’s not like one team has more experience in some area over the other.”
Both coaches also boast championship pedigrees and will bring mirror image squads onto the field Saturday.
“Watching their film, I felt like at times we were watching ourselves,” said Clackamas head coach Joe Bushman, who played quarterback and guided Benson to a 14-0 record and state title in 1988.
Bushman is in his 12th season at Clackamas and 20th overall as a coach after previously guiding Central Catholic and Lakeridge. The Mt. Hood Conference champions finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in school history and are vying to become the third straight 6A champion to finish with an unblemished record.
“Everybody’s got kind of a bounce in their step this week, it’s a long time coming for us,” said Bushman. “We’ve been working toward getting here for a while and it’s exciting for us to be here now.”
“We’ve got a really special group of seniors, I think a lot like South Medford does,” he added. “These kids have been in the program for lot of years and have really just committed themselves to this goal and work extremely hard. When you have a group of kids like that who are really good, quality kids who have their mind set to something, to see it happen for them is exciting and rewarding for a coach and I’m sure coach Singler feels the same way.”
One would be hard-pressed to find another 6A team that has traveled the lengths that South Medford has this season to reach the finals, so playing one more time on the road — and as the visiting team — is not a concern. The Panthers have already ventured to the Portland area three times, twice to Salem and once each to Eugene and Roseburg and fared well in each test thus far.
“We’ve prepared hard for this moment,” said Singler, whose 1969 Medford High team played as the visitors when it won the state title. “Even though we don’t have the pedigree to show for it, I think we have the experience because a lot of these kids have played together for three years and played some pretty big games on the road. Hopefully all that will pay significant dividends.”
For Clackamas, senior quarterback Mitchell Modjeski has sparked an offense that averages 449 yards and nearly 50 points per game. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder has completed 194 of 260 passes for 3,025 yards, 31 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“He makes good decisions, he’s accurate and he does a good job of making plays when things break down,” Bushman said of his two-year starter. “He’s not a prototype running quarterback but he’s kind of sneaky-elusive and when things do break down, he’s able to make plays with his feet and keep his eyes downfield.”
What Modjeski sees when he looks downfield is a bevy of receiving threats, led by 6-6 senior Cole Turner, who has 73 catches for 1,282 yards and 23 TDs.
The big-play threat is complemented nicely by senior receiver Aric Bergers (42 catches, 610 yards, one TD) on the opposite side and senior tight end Chad Bletko (27 catches, 511 yards, eight TDs). Junior Thomas Tolonen also boasts 28 catches for 388 yards and two scores for a Clackamas team unafraid to dial up four-wide streaks.
As a testament to the team’s balance, senior transfer running back James Millspaugh (5-11, 185) has averaged 7.2 yards per carry in amassing 1,287 yards rushing and 32 TDs. Senior Nick Vaughn has also run for 725 yards and 13 TDs behind a veteran offensive line.
“You look on film and they look like a small college team,” said Singler. “They’re good-sized and athletic. They’ve got a quarterback that can beat you with his legs and arm and tall, rangy receivers that make plays and a running back that’s running real well.”
“From top to bottom, I can see why they’re undefeated,” added the coach. “They’re a very solid football team and very well-coached so we know we have to play a clean game, much like we’ve had to do the last few weeks. The only way to get to the top is by playing well so we’ve just got to continue to play well.”
Safety Kyle Kirsch (5-11, 165) leads the Cavaliers with 63 tackles, while linebacker Justin Pagan (6-2, 215) is not far behind with 59 tackles and a team-high seven sacks. Defensive tackle Kelsen Hennessy (6-5, 250) boasts four sacks and 53 tackles and Clackamas has 15 interceptions as a team, led by linebacker Russell Gray (four) and cornerback Cade Bergers (three).
“They definitely have some talented guys that are pretty good,” said Panthers quarterback Robbie Patterson. “There’s going to be some guys that we have to worry about but as long as we play the game we’ve been playing all year we should be fine.”
South Medford’s offense has proven to be prolific in its own right, averaging 389 yards per game and 42 points with steady balance between Patterson’s passing and the running of Parnell, who repeated this season as the Southwest Conference’s offensive and defensive player of the year.
“I think the running back (Parnell) is probably one of the better ones around and might be the best all-around player in the whole state,” said Bushman.
Parnell has run for 1,390 yards and 24 TDs to go with 37 catches for 365 yards and four scores, while also serving as a leading tackler on a Panther defense that allows just under 13 points per game and 268 total yards.
Patterson has completed 158 of 228 passes for 2,124 yards, 27 TDs and four interceptions and averaged 6 yards per carry with four scores. In that 2015 game, Patterson threw three first-half TDs to help South Medford gain a 21-13 advantage that slipped away when the Cavaliers used a 22-point surge in the final quarter to rally past the young Panthers.
Two of Patterson’s TD passes that night went to Chase Cota, who will have Clackamas’ increased attention after he’s pulled in 45 passes for 768 yards and 13 TDs this season.
Fellow senior Jaalen Owens, however, has been an equally tough cover this season and it was his big-play ability at cornerback that helped the Panthers keep Lake Oswego at bay in last week’s semifinals. Owens has caught 31 passes for 567 yards and eight TDs, and his five interceptions trail only senior cornerback Josiah Johnson (six) for the team lead.
Also on defense, linebackers Evan Dallas, Trent Snyder and Cole Boster have joined linemen Michael Cormier, Brandon Ditty and Cole Schumack in applying steady pressure on opponents that has helped force 31 turnovers.
“Defensively I think they move around and fly to the football a lot like our defense,” said Bushman. “They’re very passionate about that side of the ball, and offensively they’re loaded with really good weapons.”
And with all that, now it’s just a waiting game for both sides to see who will earn their first blue trophy.
“It’s out there, we’ve just got to go out there and play well to get it,” said Bushman. “I wish it was Saturday already.”
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry