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South leaves North feeling blue

It wasn't the most glamorous of Black and Blue Bowls, but the 22nd meeting between the football teams at North Medford and South Medford offered intense second-half drama and a handful of series records to boot.

Using the punishing running style of junior Patrick Thibeault and the sure-handed receiving of Mitch and E.J. Singler, the Panthers fended off a gritty effort by the Black Tornado for a 21-12 victory Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.

The win closed South's gap in the Black and Blue Bowl to 14-8, and allowed the Panthers to snap a two-game losing streak in the series.

It also allowed South Medford (7-2, 4-1 SWC) to maintain its momentum with a fourth straight win heading into the Class 6A state playoffs. The Panthers, who had already secured the No. 2 seed out of the Southwest Conference, will play host to Barlow next Friday at Spiegelberg in the first round.

"People said it didn't really mean anything since we've got second place locked up, but it is big," Thibeault said of Friday's victory in front of about 7,000 fans. "It's not only for Medford pride, but you've got to be looking strong going into the playoffs. You don't want to have a letdown the week before your first playoff game."

Thibeault was one of three Panthers to set or equal Black and Blue records Friday night, rushing for a series-best 238 yards on 31 carries with one touchdown. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder had 171 of those yards in the second half, thanks to six runs of 10 yards or more.

"We wanted to come in and physically take it to them and then air it out with A.J. (Palazzolo), E.J. (Singler) and Mitch (Singler) and that's what we did," said Thibeault, who had a 10-yard scoring run on South's opening drive. "The first drive we took it down real hard and then we started airing it out and it really worked for us."

Mitch Singler set a Black and Blue record with 167 yards receiving on seven receptions, which equaled the most catches in the series held by a trio of Panthers entering the game. North Medford's Isaac Silafau, however, finished with the record by virtue of his eight catches for 117 yards.

South Medford defensive back John Adamson also equaled a Black and Blue mark with his two first-half interceptions.

"There were a lot of individual efforts on both sides of the ball," said South Medford coach Bill Singler, who improved to 3-7 against North. "You needed your stars to perform in this kind of game, and both team's premier players did."

It didn't look like Friday's game would develop into much after a ragged first half that saw North quarterback Jordan Ellis throw three interceptions — one by Michael Harthun at the South 2-yard line to halt a steady opening drive — and South Medford's Sam McLaughlin miss his first field goal of the season.

The Panthers also struggled at times handling the constant blitzing pressure of linebacker Richard Treiber, who seemed to be in South's backfield more than Thibeault.

"We had to try to disrupt things in the backfield," said North Medford coach Jeff Olson. "They're bigger than us and more physical than us so we had to try to disrupt things as much as possible."

Another missed field goal by McLaughlin and an interception of Palazzolo by Ellis at midfield thwarted South's opening two possessions of the second half, but the Panthers found their rhythm after that.

A fumble by North's Andrew Jones after a screen pass was recovered by Brett Wallan to give the ball back to South after Ellis' big play, and the Panthers didn't take long to capitalize. South marched 66 yards in four plays for their second score of the game, with Mitch Singler capping the drive on a 39-yard scoring strike from Palazzolo to make it 14-0.

The Black Tornado (3-6, 1-4) stepped it up on its next drive as well, with Colin Sowers taking an innocent shovel pass from Ellis and eluding all comers for a 64-yard score.

"It's a really sneaky play so we wanted to put it in because we knew it would get a lot of yards and it worked out for us," said Sowers, who finished with 99 yards receiving on two catches.

A pair of unsportsmanlike penalties pushed the extra-point attempt back to a 35-yarder — the second time in the game post-play miscues challenged each team's kicker — and Alex Russell's effort missed to the right.

But instead of falling prey to a Tornado comeback, the Panthers answered right back with a score of their own thanks to a 57-yard run by Thibeault on their first play of the ensuing drive and a 23-yard TD pass from Palazzolo to Mitch Singler on the second play.

Both plays were impressive, but especially the touchdown connection as Palazzolo sent the ball skyward well before his receiver had made a break on his corner route. The ball looked like it might be too long, but instead it found the waiting arms of a surging Singler.

The score came with 58.9 seconds to go in the third quarter, and proved pivotal not only because it answered North's TD but it allowed the Panthers to stay two scoring possessions ahead of the Tornado.

Or so they thought.

Ellis marched North right back for a score on the ensuing possession, with Sowers bouncing left to the outside of South's pursuit for a 10-yard scamper into the end zone. Hoping to bring the score to a seven-point margin, the Tornado went for two but Ellis' play fake on a bootleg didn't fool Blake Lippitt, who sacked the QB on the two-point conversion.

North Medford got the ball back trailing 21-12 with 8:27 to play and once again moved into scoring position before stalling at the Panther 18. After two straight incompletions and a sack by E.J. Singler, the Tornado opted to attempt a 42-yard field goal with 5:17 to play but Russell's effort barely sailed outside the right upright.

Behind the running of Thibeault and McLaughlin, the Panthers were able to run off the final 5:12 of the game to preserve the victory.

"We gave it our best shot," said Olson. "I'm very proud of the kids. Sure we're disappointed to end on a losing note to a cross-town rival, but they earned it. They answered the call every time that we did something."

"I would've liked to see what happened if we put some points on the board in that last drive," added the second-year coach. "It could've been interesting. But we didn't and, unfortunately, that's the tale of our season: coulda, shoulda, woulda."

Considering it was the Black and Blue Bowl, Bill Singler didn't expect anything less than the Tornado's best.

"You know going in it's going to be a war," said the 10th-year Panther coach. "They had guys making plays out there from Silafau to Sowers to Ellis to (Almeir) Barlow. I give them a lot of credit, those guys came to play."

"In the end, though, I think our effort on both sides of the ball won the game for us," added Bill Singler. "Different kids stepped up for us at different times, and that's a sign of a good football team."

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

South Medford’s Patrick Thibeault runs past North Medford’s Jordan Ellis during Friday’s game. - Jamie Lusch