CORVALLIS — South Medford left everything it had on the Reser Stadium field, and that’s all Bill Singler could ask for.
The fifth-seeded Panthers came up one point short in Saturday’s Class 6A football state championship game, a 31-30 loss to No. 2 Clackamas. Both programs were making their first title game appearance in what will be remembered as an all-time classic.
“I told (Clackamas coach) Joe Bushman before the game that I thought the two best teams were in the state final,” said Singler, who just wrapped up his 20th season at the helm. “Then the battle went on and look at the score. It had to go down to the wire between the two best teams in the state, and somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose.
“Our team is a bunch of winners and they’ll get over this. It’ll hurt for a while, but they’ll persevere and they’ll move on and learn form it.”
Saturday’s matchup had it all from explosive offensive plays to hard-hitting, stout defense.
“It was special just to be in this game,” South Medford senior Chase Cota said. “And then to be competing the whole way and have it be a great game for the fans and everyone, it was a good experience. We just lost in the end to a great team, but I feel a lot better about it that it wasn’t a private school or a transfer-in school. It was two homegrown teams that just battled it out the whole way.”
After receiving their runner-up trophy, the Panthers gathered around Singler in the north end zone. The upbeat coach heaped praise on the solemn group while reiterating how proud the players should be of making it this far.
Singler didn’t want to see any moping or head-hanging as South Medford’s large gathering of supporters pooled onto the artificial turf. He told the story of his 1970 Medford team falling to Corvallis on the same field to end his senior season. The previous year, Medford had routed the Spartans for the Class A title.
Losses sting immensely, but they also build character.
“I’m just glad that I got to do it with all my boys, all my best friends,” Jaalen Owens said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, really. I’m just glad I got this opportunity.”
STALLED OFFENSE: Owens had a monster first half for South Medford, hauling in five passes for 102 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also kicked a 31-yard field goal that gave the Panthers an early 3-0 lead.
But midway through the game, Owens reaggravated a back injury he sustained in last week’s semifinal win over Lake Oswego. The 6-foot-1, 165-pound senior was unable to play offense, defense or special teams the rest of the way.
“He just couldn’t twist and go,” Singler said of Owens. “You don’t want to hurt a kid any further. He couldn’t finish and we feel bad for him that he couldn’t.”
The Panthers, who led 24-14 at halftime, were held scoreless after Robbie Patterson’s 5-yard rushing touchdown with 7:11 remaining in the third. South Medford ended the game with straight three punts and a lost fumble.
“We were calling the same plays and we were just behind in the chains,” Cota said. “With one receiver hurt, all eyes are on (myself) and (Jaylin Parnell), so it was just kind of hard to make something happen when everyone knows where you are going.”
ROAD WARRIORS: The Panthers departed Medford before 6:45 a.m. Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Reser Stadium.
An early-morning bus ride up Interstate 5 didn’t phase South Medford, which is more than used to lengthy traveling. The Panthers played games in Wilsonville, West Linn, Salem and Hillsboro during the season.
“We are road warriors, man,” Owens said. “This was actually not that bad. Most of our guys wake up early in the morning to lift anyway, so we wake up at 5 in the morning all the time. This wasn’t anything different.”
Singler felt an early bus ride was better than staying in Corvallis overnight.
“We know how to travel,” Singler said. “You just have to travel in the way that’s best for your team. For high school kids, it’s not going and staying overnight and being in a motel room. We are used to getting up, traveling, eating along the way and playing football.”
STOP UNIT: South Medford did an excellent job containing star receiver Cole Turner, a Nevada Wolf Pack commit.
The 6-foot-6 Turner had just three catches for 43 yards and a TD while running for 19 yards on four carries.
“We knew we could give him a little cushion because he’s not super quick,” Cota said. “If he catches a slant here and there, it’s no big deal. He’s a long strider and a good player, so you don’t want to let him pick up speed and get by you.”
The Cavaliers passed for 230 yards and ran for 233, netting 4.3 yards per rush. Clackamas’ longest play was a 39-yard burst by James Millspaugh.
South Medford compiled 420 yards of total offense, running for 129 and passing for 291.
“They didn’t beat us with the big play,” Singler said. “We made them drive the field, which is what we wanted to do. I thought our defense played well.
“Offensively, I thought we played about as well as we could with the exception of a couple drives in there. But you know what, I’ve got to give them credit because they played better in the second half defensively and it was just a hard-fought game.”