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Panthers close home slate against Axemen

From the quick pace preferred by South Eugene's football team to the importance of securing a state-playoff berth, third-ranked South Medford will need to be on its toes Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.

The Axemen come to town for the second time this season with hopes of snapping a winless streak in Southwest Conference play that has grown to 13 games, but they are far from easy pickings. South Eugene (4-2, 0-2 SWC) still boasts one of the league's most potent offenses at nearly 32 points and 392 yards per game.

"They're a dangerous team, there's no question about it," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler.

Friday night also marks the final home game of the regular season for the Panthers (5-1, 2-0), who play the final two weeks on the road for the first time under Singler.

"We're preparing like their backs are up against the wall and this is kind of a do-or-die game for them if they have playoff aspirations," Singler says of the Axemen. "But we can turn around and say the same thing for us. If we want to be a playoff team, we've got to win our third game because we have two of the toughest road games you can have to end the season in two of the toughest environments at Roseburg and Sheldon."

Neither team is coming off its best game of the season, but both found something they can build on for the future. Each team ran the ball effectively a week ago behind breakout performances from a pair of seniors in South Medford's Mario Sainez and South Eugene's Keenan Jordan.

For Sainez, it was his first 100-yard game at the varsity level, and the runs that put him over the top couldn't have come at a better time. The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder carried 22 times for 117 yards, capped by a 16-yard touchdown run that gave South Medford a 28-21 win over North Medford.

"Mario really ended that game on a high note and finished off the game for us like we needed with a burst and some tough runs," says Singler.

Junior Kevin Gilmore remains the Panthers' leading ground-gainer at 346 yards on 73 carries, but Sainez is right on his heels at 343 yards on 81 carries.

"They both have played very well for us this year and each has had good games individually and collectively they've played well together," says Singler. "It just happened to be Mario's night (last Friday), who's to say it won't be Gilmore's night Friday or down the road?"

South Eugene head coach Travis Johnson says he was equally impressed by Jordan's breakthrough performance. The 5-9, 200-pounder carried the ball 14 times for 162 yards and three scores in a 49-27 loss to Roseburg. Jordan ranks just ahead of the Panther duo with 418 yards on 49 carries and is part of a deep corps of runners that includes Aaron Moville (57 for 260) and Richard Ramsey (22 for 229).

The Axemen prefer to run a no-huddle attack that has two speeds: fast and faster. After the referee has spotted the ball, South Eugene looks to snap the ball within five to eight seconds — and sometimes doesn't even wait that long.

"There's good and bad with it, though," Johnson adds. "If you go three-and-out it's bad because you've only burned about 25 seconds off the clock."

While the running attack is South Eugene's bread and butter, quarterback Cameron Ofner also has two standout targets in 6-5 wide receiver Spencer Coleman and 6-2 tight end Gus Craig. Coleman was a thorn in the Panthers' side in last year's 28-18 win in Eugene, hauling in eight passes for 192 yards.

"I've always told our team one guy can't beat you," says Singler, "but he came as close as I've ever seen of having one guy beat you."

While the flu has caught up to most teams, the Axemen expect to be without several key players due to a rash of concussions. Linebackers Thomas Garibaldi and James Banks will be out Friday, as well as offensive linemen Jonathan Sayers, Charlie Gibson and McKinley Keener.

"We all got brand-new helmets, too, so I'm not sure what the problem is," says Johnson.

Standout defensive end Gabe King will also be out of action as he recovers from surgery on a torn meniscus in his knee. King is hopeful to return for the Oct. 30 game against Sheldon, but Johnson says that may be a long shot.

One key player who will be on the field for the Axemen will be senior linebacker Troy Bolivar, who seemingly was all over the field against North Medford and plugged the running lanes very effectively.

NORTH MEDFORD AT SHELDON — Top-ranked Sheldon (6-0, 2-0 SWC) is as good as advertised, but the Irish have had that on their side since the SWC began in 2006 and it hasn't stopped North Medford from giving them a run.

The Black Tornado (4-2, 1-1) never trailed in last year's meeting until John Campbell's extra-point kick in overtime sent Sheldon to a 28-27 victory.

In 2006, North Medford led 21-10 with 51/2 minutes to play before Sheldon pulled off an improbable comeback to win 25-21.

When the teams last met in Eugene in 2007, however, Sheldon won 38-10.

"Certainly we're facing a formidable opponent in Sheldon," says North Medford head coach Jeff Olson, "but I want our kids to believe that they belong on the same field and they can compete. Five of our last six games have come down to the last three minutes of the game. Unfortunately we haven't finished two of those, but we've had a chance in every game."

Olson says he doesn't believe in moral victories, but last week's effort in a close loss to No. 3 South Medford provided some optimism and confidence in the Tornado camp.

Player-of-the-year candidate Jordan Johnson is the guiding force for Sheldon, and has been since leading the Irish to the 6A crown as a sophomore in 2007. The senior has completed 77 of 110 passes for 1,502 yards, with 22 touchdowns and only one interception. Johnson has also rushed for 491 yards and six scores.

"He's a tremendous athlete and they've got several of them," says Olson, "but it all starts with the quarterback. He's got them going, and they seem to be very determined to get back on top."

The Irish are averaging 513 yards and 51 points per game. Although they also allow 328 yards of offense on average, the Irish are holding opponents to 16 points per game.

Tight end/defensive end Curtis White has already committed to play at the University of Oregon, and Campbell ranks first in the SWC with 785 yards and 12 TDs on 34 receptions. Tailback Cameron Abeene leads the league with 570 yards on 55 carries.

North will look to counter with the SWC's No. 1 total defense (244 yards) and scoring defense (15 points per game) and an offense guided by hard-nosed quarterback Brian Reese and receivers Cory Haggans, Fiki Silafau and Jeremy Scottow.

Reese has thrown for 1,128 yards and eight TDs on 91 of 152 passing, while Haggans is second in the SWC with 547 yards on 33 receptions.

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