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South towers above rest of SOC

The Panthers, ranked second in the state, are poised to claim a 10th conference crown in the last 14 years

Dependable as summer into September in Oregon, the South Medford boys soccer program is the class of the Southern Oregon Conference.

The Panthers were in 1990, when they won their first SOC title.

And they are now, as they shoot for a 10th in the last 14 years.

— This fall, there doesn't appear to be much that could stop South from ruling the SOC, and that's why the Panthers were an easy No. — in the preseason coaches poll.

South (5-0-1), ranked second and coming off a 0-0 tie with No. — Sheldon on Friday, is simply too deep, too steady and too good in a conference that doesn't feature a whole lot of returning talent this year.

South Medford is the key, as usual, says Eisa Tiaa Tutu, Ashland's sixth-year head coach. Every year, South is on top.

It seems that way to the rest of the league, as the other coaches say, matter-of-factly, that their teams are in the hunt for second through seventh.

Eagle Point, which hasn't won an SOC game in 11 years and counting, is the only squad considered a non-contender for four berths to the Class 4A state playoffs.

Our conference is probably as even as it's been in a while, says Marty Ledgerwood, Klamath Union's third-year head coach. South is definitely the favorite, but there's probably six teams fighting for the other three spots.

Dave Potter, however, doesn't believe that his Panthers, as powerful as they may be, will be unchallenged as they carry a 12-match SOC winning streak into the season, which kicks off Tuesday.

Crater's gonna be tough, says the sixth-year head coach. They're gonna be a threat. They wanna be No. 1, and I think they have the players who have the experience and the know-how. They've got game.

The Comets, coming off a breakthrough campaign highlighted by the program's first postseason berth and playoff victory, return six starters, which ties with Grants Pass for the league's high.

They host South on Oct. 18.

But they're not the definitive No. 2.

Ashland, in fact, is the coaches' pick for second, with Crater third, Grants Pass fourth, Klamath Union fifth, Roseburg sixth, North Medford seventh and Eagle Point eighth.

Everybody but the Eagles believes they have a shot at spots two through four.

I think we can challenge for the second spot, the third spot and definitely the fourth spot, says 12th-year head coach Rich Garcia, whose Black Tornado hope to rebound from an uncharacteristic seventh-place showing last fall. With our top 15 players, the talent is really good. Any one of those could be starters.

Only two players off last year's 14-man all-SOC first team are back, and just six return from the 15-man second team.

Sweeper Spencer Hunter and forward Corey O'Neill were first- and second-team selections, respectively, and serve as South's senior leaders this fall.

Crater senior goalkeeper Tomas Iboa is the other first-teamer back in the mix.

Potter, ever-excitable, is supremely pleased with his co-captains.

We have such a rich history of sweepers at South Medford High, he says. And Spencer Hunter may be setting a new standard.

Corey O'Neill takes care of setting a tempo up at the front. ... He models hard play.

Senior central midfielder Josh Williams, senior marking fullback Eric Rubey and junior goalkeeper Mike Belzberg are the Panthers' other returning starters.

The roster goes 18 deep total and is full of versatile, athletic parts.

All in all, we have the ability to set ourselves up to have a successful season, Potter says. We should be OK.

In other words, the SOC should again be South Medford at the top, and then everybody else.

South Medford?s Corey O?Neill, left, and Spencer Hunter are the senior co-captains of a team expected to rule the SOC this fall. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven