Wolves wallop Panthers
TUALATIN — After playing with fire over the past few weeks, the South Medford football team got burned at a most inopportune moment Friday night in the misty conditions at Tualatin High.
The No. 8 Panthers were able to overcome slow starts in two of their last three games leading up to the second-round skirmish with Tualatin in the Class 6A state playoffs, but the Timberwolves nipped that streak in the bud.
Tualatin marched down field at will on its opening two drives and was the beneficiary of a safety to take a 16-0 lead less than eight minutes into the game.
It didn't get much better from there for the Panthers as Tualatin took a 30-0 lead after only 141/2 minutes of action and cruised to a 44-14 triumph.
"You've got to give it to them," said South Medford coach Bill Singler. "They were ready to play and they played well, especially early. It took us a while to get jump-started, and by the time we did, too much was ahead of us."
Tualatin (7-3) showed tremendous poise and offensive balance in the early going, needing only five plays to go 70 yards after the opening kickoff for its first score. Andrew Patton hauled in a 31-yard pass from Levi Levasa to cap the drive.
After the opening drive stalled for South Medford (8-3), E.J. Singler dropped back in punt formation but the snap from the Panthers own 30 sailed high over the 6-foot-6 junior's head and made its way to the end zone before Singler pushed it out of bounds for a safety.
Tualatin's 9-0 lead ballooned to 16-0 three minutes later when Dennis Ranck bulled in from the 1-yard line. Matt Losli helped put the T'wolves deep in South territory thanks to a sensational diving catch at the Panther 21 for a 20-yard gain.
South's ensuing drive bogged down near midfield and, trailing 16-0, the Panthers felt they needed to sway momentum so they went for it on a fourth-and-one at the Tualatin 49. Junior tailback Patrick Thibeault, however, was swarmed under by a surge of Tualatin players for a 1-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
Although it was a first-quarter play, it was symbolic of the night for South Medford as the Panthers struggled to gain any leverage at the line of scrimmage.
"We just couldn't match their physicalness up front," said coach Singler. "We've gotten by all season with that, but not tonight.
"They dominated the line of scrimmage, which really hurt us on both sides of the ball."
A 5-yard scoring strike from Levasa to Patton made it 23-0 five seconds into the second quarter, and it was 30-0 21/2 minutes later when Levasa found Losli alone in the right corner of the end zone for a 16-yard score on third-and-goal.
It remained that way through halftime, but the Panthers showed some moxie with two touchdowns and a defensive stand on the first three series coming out of intermission.
Senior quarterback A.J. Palazzolo lofted a 29-yard scoring strike to E.J. Singler to put the Panthers on the board, then added a 20-yarder to his tight end after South finally slowed Tualatin.
Suddenly it was 30-14 with five minutes to go in the third quarter, and the Panthers were hungry for more.
"At that point, we just wanted to come out and play and end our season by leaving it all on the field," South senior linebacker D.J. Titus said of the third-quarter surge.
The Panthers had a chance to make things really interesting moments later when Titus forced Tualatin into a third-and-five at the South 49 on a great surging play up the middle.
But as the Timberwolves were able to do all night, they answered the challenge. Phil Pauly took a counter handoff up the middle and saw nothing but daylight until he was finally brought down 13 yards later at the South 36.
Tualatin had already made several big plays to that point, but getting that first down may have been the biggest considering the momentum the Panthers were feeling on their sideline.
"If they don't get a first down, they punt and maybe we go down and score and it's 30-21 or 30-22 if we go for two," said coach Singler. "All of a sudden then they're on their heels and it's a different game. But you've got to give Tualatin the credit they deserve. When we made the run at them they went and took it the other direction."
The Timberwolves' punishing running attack did the rest, with John Grill bowling over from the 1 to make it 37-14 with 11:45 remaining.
South managed one final push, but Palazzolo was intercepted in the end zone by Danny Johnson when he tried to hit E.J. Singler on a fade to the back left corner.
A muffed punt by Michael Harthun set up the final score, with Ranck scooting in from the 1 with 3:25 to play.
"We never gave up and that's what this team is built on," said E.J. Singler, "but things just weren't going our way."
Tualatin rushed 46 times for 343 yards and finished with 489 yards of total offense, led by Grill's 166 yards on 19 carries. Ranck rushed 12 times for 67 yards and the fullback used his 6-foot, 220-pound frame to plow the road for Grill.
"Our mentality early on was outhit your opponent," said Grill, a 5-11, 200-pound running back/linebacker. "To set the tempo you come out here and smack 'em and keep doing that all the way through, and that's what we did."
The Panthers managed only 17 yards on the ground on 19 carries, and Palazzolo was harassed into completing 20 of 37 passes for 220 yards with two interceptions.
"It was just a hard night for us," said E.J. Singler, who caught 10 passes for 137 yards and two TDs. "I thought we played hard and were prepared, we just didn't make many plays."
"It was hard for A.J. to get off passes and it was just hard to move the ball overall," he added.
Mitch Singler saw his string of games with 100 yards receiving and one touchdown halted at 10, with the junior managing six catches for 79 yards.
As disappointing as a season-ending loss always is, the Panthers tried to put their solid season in perspective after Friday's game.
"This has been one of the most phenomenal seasons in South history," said Titus of South's rise from a winless Southwest Conference run last year to runner-up status this season. "We proved a lot of people wrong, and I'm happy with this season. I'm beyond words at how proud I am of the rest of my team. I love these guys. This has been the best season of my life."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com