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Panthers set to face familiar foe in Tualatin

Second chances don't come around often in life, and South Medford coach Bill Singler is hoping his Panthers will take full advantage of theirs tonight in Tualatin.

For the second time this season, and third in the past two years, South Medford will square off against the Timberwolves — only the stakes will be higher this time around.

Instead of using the contest as a springboard toward a successful league season, Tualatin and South Medford will meet in the loser-out setting of the Class 6A football state playoffs. Kickoff for the second-round game is 7 p.m.

The Timberwolves (6-3) earned a 27-21 win in Medford last year, then followed that up on Sept. 14 with a 41-38 triumph in a nail-biter at Tualatin.

"Sometimes in life the old adage is you don't get a second chance," says Singler, whose team has won five straight entering tonight, "but we're getting a second chance to play Tualatin, and hopefully we can make the most of it."

In other action tonight involving Southwest Conference teams, Grants Pass is at Central Catholic and Sheldon plays host to Sprague.

"It's hard to play any team twice, whether you won or lost," says Tualatin coach Craig Hastin. "I'm sure they feel the same way."

The preparation has been a little easier since each team is familiar with the other's personnel, but Hastin says his team certainly isn't resting on its laurels having already beaten the 8-2 Panthers this season.

"We haven't even thought much about that first game," adds the former Medford High coach. "We're only thinking about this second game. We feel they do a lot of things they did in the first game, but run a little better and more often than they did in the first game. We know we have our hands full with them."

In the early season meeting, Tualatin was able to stuff South's running attack so the Panthers took to the air and A.J. Palazzolo produced his best game at the time with 319 yards and three touchdowns on 29-for-49 passing.

Two late field goals by Wes Neary allowed the Timberwolves to eke out the victory, with the game-winner coming with 16 seconds remaining.

South Medford led 13-0 through the first quarter, but Tualatin caught fire thanks to the passing of Levi Levasa and it was a back-and-forth track meet from the second quarter to the final whistle.

Levasa caught the Panthers off guard by passing for three TDs and accounting for 279 yards through the air for the traditionally run-dominated Timberwolves. A particular strength for Levasa is his ability to scramble and keep plays alive for big gainers downfield to receivers like Matt Losli, Danny Johnson and Andrew Patton.

Levasa has completed 71 of 150 passes for 1,370 yards and nine TDs, while Losli has 29 receptions for 477 yards and five scores and Johnson 19 catches for 447 yards and two TDs.

"I thought we did a decent job at times against him," says Singler, "and then all of a sudden he'd escape out there and throw a good ball and guys would catch it."

While Tualatin continues to air it out with the mobile Levasa at the helm, more recently the Timberwolves have utilized the punishing running style of senior Dennis Ranck to set the tone.

Similar in style to South Medford tailback Patrick Thibeault, Ranck used his speed and power to rush for three TDs in Tualatin's regular season finale against Forest Grove and rushed 22 times for 108 yards and a TD a week prior during a 10-6 win over Tigard.

Those wins allowed Tualatin to force a three-way tie for the Pacific Conference title with Tigard and Canby, and the Timberwolves won a coin toss to earn the No. 1 seed and a bye last week.

"Structurally we know they can throw the ball so that won't be a surprise," says Singler. "But they've kinda got their running game going now, and that's always been Tualatin's M.O. They like to run the football and the run sets up the pass for them, so we've got to be prepared for that."

Also keying Tualatin's running attack besides Ranck and Levasa are Alek Poti, who led Tualatin with 48 yards on just two carries against the Vikings, and Phil Pauly, who ran for two scores in that game.

Hastin says South's improved running attack has been a focus of his team's preparation as well, and he was particularly impressed with the Panther defense against a good Barlow offense and Malcolm Johnson, the state's leading rusher.

"They're just an excellent team," Hastin says of South. "They throw the ball extremely well and those Singler boys (Mitch and E.J.) can catch just about anything. The thing that amazed me after seeing them last week is how they've improved on defense. I think they really swarm to the ball and that's helped them a lot as they've progressed through this season."

Singler agrees that the key to tonight's game may rest with the defense.

"It's a big test," says the coach. "They know they can score points and we know we scored points against them. The key is which defense is going to show up and rise to the occasion and have success against the opposing offense."

GRANTS PASS AT CENTRAL CATHOLIC — The real Grants Pass Cavemen returned last week in an upset of Tigard, 36-29, as junior tailback Criss Bowen ran wild against the Tigers and senior quarterback Zach Morgan effectively passed for three TDs and 248 yards.

Proving his ankle is fully healed after suffering a late-season injury, Bowen broke off scoring runs of 81 and 71 yards in the third quarter to help GP counter Tigard. Bowen finished with 210 yards rushing on 22 carries.

After Tigard had taken a 29-28 lead, Morgan directed a game-winning 82-yard drive capped by a 10-yard hookup with Dee Wiersma with 1:37 to play. Morgan then connected with Jennings Stewart on a two-point conversion to give GP its seven-point advantage.

The Cavemen (8-3) will face a completely different look in Central Catholic (7-4) at 5 tonight at Portland's PGE Park. Unlike the ground-oriented Tigers, Central Catholic prefers the passing game. Rams quarterback Nick Green ranked fourth in 6A passing yards during the regular season with 2,134 after completing 150 of 268 passes with 24 TDs.

Green passed for 204 yards in the Rams' 35-19 upset of No. 7 Southridge last week, and also added 96 yards rushing on 11 carries.

Jordan Freelander has been the leading receiver for Central Catholic, the No. 3 seed from the Mt. Hood League. Freelander capped the regular season with 43 catches for 763 yards and 11 TDs.

SPRAGUE AT SHELDON — Sprague needed a late-season winning streak to qualify for the state playoffs, then took it a step further last week when the Olympians scored 20 unanswered points to rally for a 27-24 victory against Centennial.

Key to the comeback was a position change that saw starting quarterback Adam Kniffin move to wide receiver and Jeff Kidd step in under center. The duo turned in a few big plays to spark Sprague (6-5), the No. 3 seed from the Central Valley Conference.

The Olympians have now won three straight heading into a matchup with SWC champion Sheldon (9-1). The third-ranked Irish had a bye last week and stand to be fully recharged and ready to pad their eight-game winning streak.

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