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Hard to catch

One is a track star who doubles as a prominent figure in the North Medford passing attack.

The other is steeped in football tradition and more than able to hold his own on the track at South Medford High.

Two different approaches to the same result: Almeir Barlow and Mitch Singler can be a cornerback's nightmare.

"When you get these guys running down the field, guys like Barlow and Mitch and E.J. (Singler) with long strides, all of a sudden they're by you and you're left wondering what just happened," says South Medford coach Bill Singler, Mitch's dad and a former standout receiver at Stanford. "Guys like that are dangerous and put a lot of pressure on the defense."

South Medford has certainly taken advantage of its strength in the passing game with the Singler cousins. Mitch Singler leads the Southwest Conference with 927 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns on 46 catches, while E.J. Singler is on his heels from his tight end spot with 733 yards and six scores on 48 receptions.

But when it's time for the Panthers to dial up a deep pass, Mitch Singler typically gets the call.

"He's become their go-to guy and is the home run hitter for them," says North Medford coach Jeff Olson. "He's the guy that has created problems for everybody all year and is one of the top players in this conference."

Barlow doesn't have quite the numbers of his cross-town peers, but that is a product of the Black Tornado's scheme as much as anything. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior has hauled in 32 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns.

His blazing speed, which translated into a seventh-place showing in the 200 meters at the Class 6A state track meet last year, has allowed Barlow to take a simple slant or screen pass to the house, as well as beat defenders on a streak deep.

"If you bump and run with him, he's going to beat you deep," says Mitch Singler of Barlow, "so you've got to show some respect for him by playing back so he can't get that big play. You've just got to do whatever you can to keep him in front of you."

Each lead receiver began running track in seventh grade, and both say that has paid big dividends toward their success on the football field.

Barlow has found more fortune inside the lanes in terms of top times (11.24 in the 100, 22.43 in the 200 and 51.30 in the 400 last year), while Singler has used the increased speed and running technique to help him spin defensive backs like a top with his smooth route running.

"The kid's a playmaker," says South quarterback A.J. Palazzolo of his teammate. "He's turned into one of the top two or three receivers in the state and it's just a credit to his hard work. He deserves everything that's happening for him this year."

In his own quiet way, Mitch Singler has turned in one of the more remarkable seasons in Panther lore for a receiver. The 6-3, 180-pound junior has caught at least one touchdown pass and eclipsed 100 yards receiving in every game this season.

"That's unheard of, truly remarkable," says coach Singler. "Nobody has done that for South as far as I know."

It's all been done through a lot of hard work and desire, with Mitch Singler using every opportunity to become a better receiver, be it through camps or studying others on TV or film.

"My whole life I've watched Jerry Rice and admired him," he says. "He's a guy I've looked to since I always knew I wanted to be a receiver when I grew up. I take a lot of pride in that position."

Barlow has refined his skills closer to home in workouts with teammates, but takes similar pride in being a difference-maker on the gridiron.

"I love being the big-play guy for us," he says. "It's a great feeling to know that when we go deep, they can go my way and I'll go get it."

And, just like Mitch Singler, Barlow enjoys the challenge of exploiting a defense that's built to stop him.

"I kinda thrive off having guys in the secondary trying to shut me down," says Barlow. "I hope coaches are trying to stop me so I can break that scheme. That's a great feeling."

Olson says what has separated Barlow this year, beyond his speed, is his willingness to work just as hard for the scout team to prepare the North's defense as when it's the offense's turn to shine. His quarterback enjoys the prospects of just getting the ball in Barlow's hands and watching him work.

"Just from seeing him in track you know that anytime he gets the ball he can outrun anybody on the field," says North junior Jordan Ellis. "When he gets it, it's just watch and see what happens."

And while both receivers enjoy their time in the spotlight, each is quick to defer credit to their quarterback and fellow receivers.

"I've got a lot of guys with me that help me get open," says Mitch Singler. "I mean, who wouldn't guard a 6-6 tight end coming across the middle like E.J.? And then you've got Mike (Harthun) and Andrew (Bennett) on the side and (Patrick) Thibeault coming out of the backfield. Having those guys around me just makes me better and makes it a lot easier to do what I do."

And not get caught in the process.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

North Medford's Almeir Barlow has blossomed into one of the Southwest Conference's top receivers. - Mail Tribune/Jamie Lusch