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South tries to cool sizzling North

Is it the new defense?

The veteran lineup?

Or maybe a selfless attitude?

Whatever the reason, the North Medford boys soccer teams is on a roll.

It's the strongest North Medford team since the one that went to the finals (in 1996), says South Medford coach Dave Potter.

How strong remains to be seen.

But Potter will get a firsthand look Wednesday when the Black Tornado (6-2-1) sweeps into Fichtner-Mainwaring Park for a 4 p.m. Southern Oregon Conference match against his Panthers (6-3-1).

In girls play, South (5-4) visits North (2-3-3) at 4 p.m. today.

Both boys teams are 3-0 in the SOC, but North has been increasingly impressive.

The Tornado has allowed five goals in nine matches and a lot of that is attributable to the flat-four zone defense taught by Oliver Stretz of Eugene.

It helps us attack a lot better, says senior Josh Grace. It keeps us playing as a team more and keeps us more accountable for our jobs.

Grace, who was the team's sweeper a year ago, and senior Ben Clark are the center backs. Juniors Dustin Wallace and Justin Bilodeau man the left and right outside slots while junior Sam Jackson rotates on the outside spots.

Defense is something pounded into us during practice, says Grace. We expect it of each other. As a marking back (sweeper), I was playing a lot of one-on-one last year. Now we're getting a lot of guys behind the ball for double-teams and triple-teams.

As one might suspect, the outside players frequently turn into offensive players in transition — to a point where fatigue could set in.

You have to be in really good running shape to run this defense because everybody comes back and the outside backs make a lot of runs forward, Grace says. You can't win if you don't score, and our defense is how our offense develops.

Although the Tornado hasn't worked all the bugs out, it has gained confidence.

The times we play to our full potential, we can score a lot, Grace says. We were down a goal to Ashland, then scored three times in 20 minutes. We could put a lot of goals on people if we did that for 80 minutes instead of 20.

Last year, North surprised favored South, defeating the Panthers 2-1 in a shootout after South had won the previous five meetings.

Potter acknowledges the roles have been swapped.

North Medford is a senior-laden team, and last year we were a senior-laden team, Potter says. The onus is on them this year, as far as being the favorite.

South has scored just nine goals in 10 matches and been shut out four times. Also, it lost forward/midfielder Ryan Wallenberg for a month with a mouth injury last week. He?ll be replaced by sophomore Daniel Potter — the coach's son. More likely to return for the match will be sweeper Craig Tomlins

Dave Potter says there is no mystery to North's defensive play that has allowed a little more than a half-goal per game.

To any defensive system, there is a solution, Potter says. We have to attack intelligently and pick and choose our spots to go forward. You just don't go, go go. The bottom line is that you have to read the field.

Potter notes that last year's victory was North's high-water mark as the Tornado failed to advance to the state playoffs, while South rebounded and made it all the way to the state semifinals.

Wednesday's winner will all but be assured of a state playoff spot and be in the driver's seat to the conference crown.

The hero of last year's North-South

girls clash will be on the sidelines with a knee injury suffered during a summer basketball camp.

South goalkeeper Heather Fossen, whose sudden-death goal deterred North from extending its winning streak over its cross-town rivals to four games, is out for the year.

Nonetheless, first-year South coach Buzz Thielemann is confident that the Panthers can put together a winning streak of their own.

At the beginning of the year, I had the girls do a profile on their abilities and goals, Thielemann says. Every one of them put ?Beat North? at the top of the list. Although we?ll have other games that will probably be bigger, this one is for strutting rights and captures everyone's attention.

Although South stumbled through its non-conference schedule, the Panthers have done nothing to dissuade the coaches who picked them to win the SOC title.

I think we're 75 percent of where we want to be, Thielemann says. But the way we're playing right now — unless there's a big surprise — we?ll win by a couple of goals.

One concern, however, is that unlike some teams in the SOC, North doesn't have an obvious scorer that needs to be shut down.

Roseburg has Rachel Stribling, Klamath Union has Sam Gilbert and Crater has Sarah LaFontaine, Thielemann says. But you can't focus on one person against North.

Although North Medford coach Dick Darcy acknowledges the rivalry, he downplays the importance.

A lot of people get concerned about the teams they are playing, Darcy says. My theory is that no matter who we play, we're going to be playing our game of pressure on the ball and going forward.