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South Medford rallies for playoff victory

If there's one thing you can say about the South Medford football team, it's that the Panthers don't mind playing in close games.

Brimming with experience in games that come down to the wire, South Medford conjured up yet another fourth-quarter surge to deny Oregon City and earn a 20-13 road victory in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs Friday night.

Josh Milhollin connected with Brett Wallan for his third touchdown pass of the game with 2:06 to play and tacked on a two-point conversion run to help the Panthers erase a 13-12 deficit. South Medford's defense rose to the challenge after that, denying the host Pioneers on four straight plays to regain the ball and run out the clock.

"It was an exciting game that went back and forth," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "We had a couple missed opportunities and they ended up getting a couple touchdowns on freak plays, but our kids again held together and made plays when they needed to."

South Medford (7-3) will play host to Jesuit at 7 p.m. next Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium. The second-ranked Crusaders (9-1) topped McKay 41-0 in their opening-round affair.

South Medford season ticket holders have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to purchase their existing reserved seats. All remaining seats for the second-round game will be available for sale to the general public from 8 a.m. Thursday until noon Friday at the South Medford High ticket office. Reserved seats are $8, and general admission tickets are available at the gate one hour prior to kickoff at $6 for adults and $4 for students/children.

The Panthers carried a 6-0 lead into halftime after a lackluster first half for both teams. South's touchdown came on a 14-yard, first-quarter pass from Milhollin to Josh Havird, but the ensuing extra-point kick by Parker Thomas failed. The Panthers also had a first-and-goal at the Pioneers' 5-yard line in the first half but were turned away.

South Medford mounted a lengthy drive that included two fourth-down conversions midway through the third quarter to get to Oregon City's 11 before stalling again. Thomas' bid for a 32-yard field goal was denied moments later when Charlie Poppen burst through the left side and blocked the kick. Oregon City's Anthony Rhemrev-Field then scooped up the loose ball and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the third quarter.

Taylor Belmont's ensuing extra-point kick gave the Pioneers (4-6) their first lead at 7-6.

"Obviously that was a miscue and a missed opportunity for us," Singler added, "and it gave them a lot of momentum."

That momentum was short-lived, however, as Milhollin and company answered with another lengthy drive that was capped by a 36-yard scoring pass to Allen Fitzsimmons on a deep post pattern. South Medford's two-point conversion pass failed, leaving the score at 12-7.

The Pioneers came up with their second unusual score to answer with about four minutes remaining. Quarterback Zach Roberts scrambled around on a third-down play and eventually sent a wobbly high pass deep downfield toward Poppen. Havird, who already had one interception of Roberts, went up to knock the ball away but the tipped ball found its way into the hands of Marc Morris for a 44-yard TD pass.

"That was a bummer to see that happen," said Singler. "Our guys are in position and we don't make the play and they don't make the play and they're looking around for the ball and in the meantime it gets tipped back right to one of their other guys for a touchdown."

Oregon City's bid to take a three-point lead failed when Roberts' pass on the two-point conversion fell incomplete.

Needing to march 76 yards inside the final four minutes, the Panthers appeared to be in trouble when Milhollin's first two passes fell incomplete. But on third-and-10, the senior quarterback found a streaking Havird up the middle and the junior receiver raced to the Oregon City 24 before being pulled down.

"We've looked death in the eye this year a couple times and our kids didn't panic," said Singler.

A Mario Sainez run and a reception by Fitzsimmons put the Panthers at the 11-yard line, and Milhollin capped the drive with a bootleg pass to Wallan for the final touchdown. Milhollin's two-point conversion run made it 20-13.

Oregon City got the ball back but couldn't do anything with it thanks to South's stingy defense. Tate Ficek came up with one of his three tackles for a loss to put the Pioneers at their own 22 and they turned the ball over on downs shortly after that.

"Our defense really stepped up there with two minutes to go in the game," said Singler. "Tate Ficek came off the edge on a blitz and made a big play there at the end."

The Panthers held Oregon City to 173 yards of total offense and forced two turnovers while amassing 361 yards of their own. Milhollin completed 17 of 25 passes for 251 yards with no interceptions, while Sainez rushed 21 times for 77 yards and caught two passes for 22 yards.

Havird (86 yards) and Fitzsimmons (79) each led the Panthers with four receptions, with Brandon Dollarhide hauling in three passes for 42 yards.

"We really had to throw the ball in the second half to win this game and I thought Josh really stepped up and threw it well and the kids protected well and our receivers made good catches like they usually do," said Singler.

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

South Medford's Allen Fitzsimmons is tackled during Friday's playoff game against Oregon City. - Jaime Valdez