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Medford rife with soccer teams in playoffs

Whether the gap is closing remains to be seen, but it's still quite a feat to see seven of the eight boys and girls soccer programs in Medford still kicking as action in the state playoffs continues today.

The boys and girls teams at North Medford and South Medford high schools each remain in the Class 6A chase, while the St. Mary's boys and girls (Class 3A/2A/1A) and Cascade Christian girls (Class 3A/2A/1A) also are in the hunt.

Seeing those same programs continue their quest would be even more impressive for a city that has fared well in recent years but not crowned a champion in a decade.

"I just think it's great for soccer in this area," North Medford boys coach Michael Belzberg said Monday. "We tend to think the people up north write us off early but we're better than they all say we are. A lot of kids here can play the game well, too."

Not to be forgotten, the boys and girls programs at Ashland High also open the Class 5A state playoffs today, and the Phoenix boys have high hopes in opening the Class 4A state playoffs.

But for one city, given the changes in playoff structure and power rankings required these days, seven out of eight soccer programs shouldn't go unnoticed.

"I think what it indicates is that we have developed a pretty solid soccer environment here in this area and it's growing, it's expanding," said St. Mary's girls coach Dave Potter. "The opportunities that are developing here are really good for the kids."

Potter and Belzberg both know something about elite soccer. It was Potter who led South Medford's boys team to the 2003 state championship — only the third in Medford soccer history after the Panthers prevailed in 1997 and St. Mary's also won in 2003 — and it was Belzberg who was a stalwart in goal for those '03 Panthers.

It hardly seems like 10 years has passed for each, with both having vivid memories of their journey to a state title that was clinched 1-0 in overtime when Spencer Hunter's direct kick scooted into the goal in the 94th minute.

"For us, that game was an overtime game and Spencer hit that one in the left corner because their keeper set up his wall in the wrong place," said Belzberg, who posted three shutouts, preserved one game on penalty kicks and staved off the defending state champions during his junior season. "There's so much luck involved in a title. It's hard to say how you get one. You have to have all the cards go the right way."

In so many years before and since that game, those cards simply haven't fallen in Medford's favor — or in the favor of southern Oregon teams in general. Since 1977 — yes, 1977 — this city has finished as a state runner-up five times in boys soccer (three by St. Mary's and one each by North and South Medford) and once in girls soccer (St. Mary's in 2010, also coached by Potter).

The Phoenix boys also were runner-up in 1995 and 2011, while Ashland's boys placed second in 2008. Hidden Valley has enjoyed the most success from this area, with two titles and one runner-up showing each for its boys and girls programs.

The bulk of the state titles (79 contested in boys soccer and 67 in girls soccer) have been secured by Portland-area schools, but Potter and Belzberg hope that trend is beginning to change.

"My St. Mary's girls have a chance to play in the semifinals every year since 2009 if we can advance this year," said Potter, whose Crusaders don't play until Saturday, "and I see that happening at all the schools here in the area. They're getting further into the state playoffs pretty consistently and that's exciting for somebody like me whose been involved in both the coaching and development of coaches with (the Olympic Development Program)."

For Potter, the advancement made during the high school season is directly related to the players' work with their club teams, most notably with the Rogue Valley Timbers (formerly Rogue Valley Soccer Club).

"It's become a much more accommodating system to our players in southern Oregon," he said. "Where in the past we had two to four players going up to Portland for ODP, we now are fielding in southern Oregon four complete teams."

"We have more and more kids playing soccer at a higher level now," added Potter. "There are more opportunities for them to play in the offseason and continue their development, and it's obviously paying some decent dividends."

When you figure in the high school-level players, Rogue Valley Timbers Director of Coaching Kevin Primerano said his club fields 27 competitive teams and plenty more at the recreational level. Every step that those players take is another step in the right direction toward closing the gap with the Portland-area programs.

"I think any time you're dealing with trying to compete with an area with such a big population like Portland, your back's always against the wall," said Primerano. "When you look at drawing from the population we are, and if we can get some teams in the quarterfinals and semifinals every once in a while, then that's a great thing. I think the gap may be closing and I think the development of the players is increasing and the level of coaching here in the valley has increased tremendously over the past five or six years. You see better coaches working with clubs, not only with ours but all others, and those types of things help close the gap with the Portland schools."

That gap, however, is far from being closed but it's on the right path, according to Belzberg, with better local players hopefully leading to better competition and more growth throughout a season.

"If you look at the (Portland-based) Metro League for us, every single player is quality and coached well and are tremendous athletes," said Belzberg, whose Black Tornado plays host to Century at 2:30 p.m. today. "It's very hard when you're from the south and you've only played a few quality opponents. Hopefully with the new conference change (beginning in 2014) and with our own improvement things will get better."

"When the competition is better," he added, "schools tend to be more successful later on down the road in the state tournament."

For Potter, the state of soccer in southern Oregon has changed dramatically during his tenure on the sidelines.

"When I go back to my early days coaching soccer in high school," he said, "we were the odd program. We were the newer program in, and soccer was still a little bit of a foreign sport in the late '80s and early '90s to schools. We were sometimes thought of as a program drawing from other programs."

But with increased participation and a broader base of spectators, Potter said soccer programs have evolved into a realistic option for schools in their pursuit of state championships and have never enjoyed as much support from administrators as they do now.

"We love high school soccer in this area and we appreciate high school soccer here more than anywhere in the state," said Potter, noting club teams are the prevailing entity further north.

"Our kids love playing for their high schools here, they really do," he added. "It means so much to our high school players to represent their schools. We're supported extremely well by our administrators and our schools and wearing those school colors means so much to the kids. It's one of our advantages and it's why we're so competitive."

But competitive only counts for so much when facing teams that often feature three times as many ODP players as yours or, in the case of Potter, were done in two years ago by a player who now roams the pitch for the Russian national women's team.

"Those kids are playing soccer at a very high level for longer periods than our kids," said Potter, "but as we're closing the gap that could easily change."

Until then, Potter and Belzberg each shared a few tips on what made their 2003 title run possible.

"Everybody's goal is to win the state championship and, in reality, only one team does," said Belzberg. "I tell the boys it's a silly goal to be state champions. It's Point A to Point Z, and you really should be going Point A to B to C. When we won in 2003 we weren't focused on winning state, the focus was on the game coming up."

That group, according to Potter, also had another important characteristic.

"When you step out on the field, you cannot sell yourself short by lacking confidence," he said. "We won the state championship in 2003 but I had a team in 2002 that could've won and 2001 that could've won and in 2000. Four years in a row we could've won and I think one thing that interfered with that is my boys didn't step on the field and have the same cocky confidence that Jesuit or Westview or Southridge had that day.

"You can't go into a state tournament match without having total confidence and a little chip on your shoulder. You just have to step up and do the things you do well and not second-guess yourself. Confidence is a big factor in all of that."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry