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Panthers pull away from game Grizzlies

ASHLAND ' If there's one thing South Medford fans have learned about their football team this season, it's that the Panthers don't mind playing a close game.

The visiting Panthers offered up their sixth straight nail-biter Friday against Ashland at Walter A. Phillips Field, using touchdown runs inside the final two minutes of the third and fourth quarters to pull away for a 28-14 victory over the Grizzlies.

We must be addicted to close games, said South Medford junior quarterback Kyle Singler. Those are the only ones we seem to play.

South Medford improved to 3-1 in Southern Oregon Conference play and 3-4 overall, while Ashland dropped its fourth straight in falling to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in conference.

The game might have been the Panthers' sixth straight contest in which the margin of victory was seven points or less, but timeouts called by the Grizzlies on South's final drive of the game enticed the visitors to pound the ball with Dan Welcome instead of simply kneeling to run out the clock. On Welcome's fourth straight carry up the middle on a drive that began at the South 27, the 5-foot-6, 177-pound senior responded with a 23-yard scoring burst to put the game out of reach with 1:02 to play.

— Welcome's career-high 175 yards rushing on 20 carries, combined with Singler's 79 yards and two TDs on 17 carries, helped the Panthers amass 267 yards on the ground against an Ashland defense that was forced to pick its poison after a while. Singler also completed 13 of 21 passes for 139 yards and a TD.

They spread you out with their offense and if you spread your linebackers out to cover the pass, then there's lanes there for the quarterback sneak, said Ashland coach Charlie Hall. And Kyle's such a strong kid that he can just fall forward and get those positive yards. It's tough. If you load the box up, then they'll beat you with the pass. It's a chess match.

And while South may have been at ease in the nip-and-tuck affair, the Ashland sideline was left waiting for the other shoe to fall after having gone into its past three games tied at halftime, only to lose out when the final 24 minutes have been unkind.

That's kinda been our Achilles' heel the last three weeks, Hall said of the second half. Every game has been a tie at halftime and then it's been kind of a close but no cigar in the second half type of thing.

The Grizzlies turned in the game's first big play when defensive back Robby Bruce stripped Ben Weaver of the football following a reception and recovered the ball at the South 19 only three minutes into the contest. Four plays later, Justin Meza plowed through from the — to give Ashland a 7-0 lead.

South answered back on the ensuing series, with Singler guiding the Panthers 75 yards on an eight-play drive capped by a perfectly placed 17-yard pass from Singler to Jared Adamson in the left corner of the end zone. A missed PAT by Tommy George left the score at 7-6.

Kelly Kline halted Ashland's next drive with the first of his three interceptions against Grizz quarterback Gus Gaviglio. Singler also nabbed two interceptions against the Ashland QB, who completed 20 of 32 passes for 203 yards and a 42-yard scoring hookup with Meza that made it 14-6 early in the second quarter.

The five interceptions didn't really factor into the contest, however, as South scored only once after a turnover ' and that was on the Panthers' final drive.

You can't win a game when you have that many turnovers, said Hall, but you really can't be that critical with Gus because of the number of interceptions. I don't think they were huge deciding factors in the game.

Hall had planned to work in banged-up senior QB Sam Littleton at some point in Friday's game, but the right time never really came about as the coach leaned more toward continuity than mixing in the former starter.

I thought there was enough positive energy in the first half with Gus where we were moving the ball and we had two TDs and a lead for a while, said Hall. I just didn't think it was fair to the team and to Gus (to make a change) because he was getting the job done.

After Gaviglio's TD pass, South answered right back again with a 5-yard run to pay dirt by Singler. The junior signal-caller then found Kline open in the flat for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 14-all with 5:41 to go until halftime.

Both teams had drives stall on their opponent's side of the field until South marched 92 yards on eight plays to take the lead for good. Singler had runs of 14 and 20 yards on the drive capped by his 2-yard plunge, while Welcome tacked on a 20-yard run of his own and Ashland was pegged for a 15-yard pass interference penalty.

George's successful PAT made it 21-14 with 1:49 to go in the third, and the Panther defense stiffened from there ' pulling down drive-ending interceptions on Ashland's final three series. The Grizzlies finished with 67 yards rushing and 270 overall.

We knew it was going to be a close game coming out here, said Singler, but our team's confident against any team in the state. We kinda thrive on these games. Close game or not, we know we're going to come out on top.

It's that battle-tested mentality that Welcome says has helped South remain in the race for a conference title despite an 0-3 start to the season.

I'm definitely feeling something special is going on, he said of South's surge. I'm hoping we keep this up and this is going to be our season. I want this bad, and I know the other seniors and juniors do, too.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail Panthers pull away from game Grizzlies"khenry@mailtribune.com.