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Panthers knock off Grants Pass

GRANTS PASS ' South Medford and Grants Pass squared off in a survival-of-the-fittest match Saturday afternoon, and it was the Panthers who showed more pep in their step late at Mel Ingram Field.

Displaying a higher fitness level and an unmistakable will to win, South Medford cast aside the Cavers, 2-1 in overtime, for a pivotal victory in Southern Oregon Conference girls soccer.

We've been working on staying in shape and conditioning, conditioning, conditioning, said first-year South coach Cindy Jolly. Today we knew it was going to be difficult and we had to dig down deep, and that's what we did.

Somewhat perturbed to even be in an overtime affair, the Panthers (7-2, 3-0 SOC) took it out on their previously undefeated foes in the two 10-minute overtime sessions.

— Despite an injured foot, South junior midfielder Kaylyn Knutson applied continual pressure to the right side of GP's defense, earning two corner kicks for the Panthers. Try as they might, the Cavers (5-1-1, 2-1) couldn't counter the assault put forth by Knutson and company, and it seemed only a matter of time before South found the net.

That time came in the 89th minute as South senior forward Amber Stevens won a free ball and then found freshman forward Chelsie O'Neill streaking up the left side of the Panther attack. Stevens immediately slipped a nifty through pass to O'Neill, who stopped on a dime when settling the ball and instinctively cut back right to shake GP defender Katelyn Van Brunt.

O'Neill then fired a low liner 25 yards to the far post for what became the game-winner.

I couldn't shoot on my left foot so I just cut it in and took the shot, said O'Neill, who credited Stevens for finding her in open space. I couldn't believe it went in the corner. I didn't care where it went, I was just shooting it. I was really excited to get that in.

South's excitement proved to deflate the Cavers, who struggled in vain to put together more than a couple decent touches in the extra sessions.

Those last 10 minutes it boiled down to fitness and they did a tremendous job physically keeping focused on their objective and getting the goal, eighth-year GP coach Hector Cruz said of the Panthers. Both teams pushed it to the brink today and that's what you like to see. We just lost focus in the last 10 minutes.

Stevens put the game in South's hands early with a goal at the seven-minute mark off an assist from junior midfielder Emma McConnell.

From there, the Panthers packed it in defensively and relied upon the steady play of goalkeeper Amanda Steiger and senior leaders Savannah Madsen and Courtney Quinowski.

We knew once they knocked one in early they were going to play very defensive and they did, said Cruz. They built a Great Wall of China back there and didn't let us in. Their defense did a tremendous job.

The physicality of play picked up considerably in the second half as the Cavers desperately tried to penetrate the Panthers' zone. Three yellow cards were handed out over the final 15 minutes of regulation and into the two overtime sessions, one each to South's Stevens and Knutson and one to GP's Kelli Roots.

They like to play physical, and we can match their physical play, said Quinowski, who was seemingly in on every defensive play for the Panthers. We don't like to, but we can. If we need to, we do what we have to do.

Grants Pass' persistence eventually paid off when freshman midfielder Sheila Lindquist sent senior midfielder Tara Luker running on a breakaway in the 60th minute.

While it appeared Luker might be whistled for offsides, no such noise came forth and the senior took full advantage of South's expectations of such a call. Luker dribbled 20 yards up the right side of GP's attack before pushing a low roller just inside the near post for the game's equalizer in regulation.

While Luker's goal could have deflated the Panthers, it only proved to fuel their fire.

We jelled together as a team after that, said Quinowski. We just went after it.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail