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Panthers face road test at GP

High school football coaches and players know better than to predict any victory or defeat, but there was one universal prediction made leading up to this Friday's clash between No. 4 South Medford and Grants Pass.

Even though the Panthers have won eight of the last nine meetings with the Cavemen — a fact each team is well aware of heading into the 7 p.m. tilt — talk of impending outcome was overshadowed by the type of ballgame expected to take place at Mel Ingram Field.

"We're definitely looking for a physical game," says Grants Pass head coach John Musser. "That's the one thing I've been telling the kids all week is that (South Medford's) going to bring the lumber. They've got some kids that can hit, that's for sure."

The same goes on the other side, where the Cavemen (2-3) return reigning Southwest Conference co-defensive player of the year John Tardieu and a host of other talented players.

"It's been a big rivalry between Medford and Grants Pass," says South Medford quarterback Josh Milhollin, "and they always bring a physical temperament to the game. We've got to watch out for John Tardieu and they've got a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, too. We can't take anything for granted, especially against a league team."

Nothing like easing into the Southwest Conference slate, huh?

"We start off right into the fire, not just the frying pan," Musser says with a laugh.

South Medford head coach Bill Singler says a key is balancing the game's importance given the rivalry and the fact that it's still only the first of five SWC contests.

"There's a long season ahead of it," says Singler. "It's not the end of the world kind of a game but it's a big game. Your first conference game is always important, just like your first game of the season is important, because it kinda sets your mind set as you go into the conference season."

South Medford (3-1) imposed its will on the Cavemen a year ago in a 28-7 victory, but most of those Panthers have graduated and Grants Pass returns a host of key players.

Chief among GP's returners is the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Tardieu, who had eight sacks and 71 tackles in the regular season last year to share the SWC's top defensive honor with South's Daniel Kinney. The standout inside linebacker already is around 40 tackles through five games, and doubles as a key figure on offense as his team's second-leading receiver (14 catches for 261 yards) at tight and a hard-nosed runner when called upon.

Brock Dean has provided considerable support as a returning first-team all-SWC safety, but the Cavemen have allowed an unusual amount of yardage (292 yards per game) thus far. Each team is allowing an average of about 19 points per game, but Grants Pass is only plus-1 in the turnover ratio and Musser says his team has struggled this year to provide its usual stone-wall efforts.

That inconsistency has plagued the Cavemen in all phases of the game, according to the GP coach.

"It's been a total roller-coaster this season and it's not just Friday nights, it's within the Friday nights," adds Musser. "We'll come out one quarter and look like a top-10 team in the state and come out another quarter and look like we're in a rebuilding year."

A lot of that has been due to a young and inexperienced group of offensive linemen. Musser says, for a myriad of reasons, the Cavemen haven't started the same group twice this season.

The key to GP's offense has been returning quarterback Jordy Romick, who has carried the ball 48 times for 228 yards in the spread offense scheme and completed 65 of 106 passes for 885 yards with seven scores and five interceptions.

"As he's gone, we've gone," says Musser.

Todd Woodrum, a transfer from Hidden Valley, leads GP with 294 yards and five TDs on 68 carries and has provided a nice complement to Romick and yet another weapon a defense must key on.

"We have to make good reads and we have to play fast and not let them get in the open field because they have a chance to make big plays," Singler says of the leading Cavemen.

South Medford counters with a defense that is allowing 289 yards per game against some stiff competition thus far, and an offense that is starting to show signs of good balance. Milhollin has completed 61 of 96 passes for 815 yards and eight TDs, while Kevin Gilmore (55 carries for 264 yards) and Mario Sainez (46 for 171) have lifted the running game.

Particular gains have been made by a steady receiving corps led by Allen Fitzsimmons, Brandon Dollarhide and Josh Havird. Fitzsimmons has hauled in 17 passes for 246 yards and three scores, Dollarhide has 16 receptions for 235 yards and three TDs and Havird has 11 catches for 159 yards and two scores.

"A lot of the guys are really starting to come into their own and we're starting to really jell together," says Milhollin.

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