Fortune favors the prepared mind, and South Medford senior Gabe Rennels was nothing if not prepared Tuesday afternoon.
Ready in wait should the opportunity arise, Rennels seized the spotlight at Spiegelberg Stadium with a left-footed 18-yard shot that sent the Panthers to a 1-0 victory over Jesuit and into their third state championship game in the program's 24-year history.
"It was pretty cool ... pretty cool," the reserved midfielder said of his goal following the game.
South Medford (13-5), the Southwest Conference's No. 3 seed, will square off against South Salem for the Class 6A boys soccer title at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Liberty High in Hillsboro. South Salem beat Clackamas 4-0 in Tuesday's other semifinal.
"It was a typical playoff game," said second-year Jesuit coach Chris Thurley, whose team dropped to 9-3-5. "One break here and there was the key. Hopefully they'll do the job on Saturday."
The Panthers came away with the state title in their only other finals appearances, in 2003 under Dave Potter and in 1997 under Wally Hicks. Tuesday's game marked only the fourth time South Medford has played in the state semifinals but the Panthers are now 3-for-4 in such games.
"These moments last a lifetime," said Panthers coach Dave Kaufman. "Getting to the final of anything is memorable. I'm proud as punch for the guys."
History was on Jesuit's side for Tuesday's matchup considering the Crusaders have earned 11 state titles in 14 finals appearances since Medford High split in 1986. Still, South Medford stood its ground and had a slight edge in ball possession during the opening 40 minutes.
The Panthers stormed out of the locker room with a couple solid scoring opportunities to open the second half, then finally found their mark in the 47th minute on a seemingly routine corner kick by senior Jaime Ibarra.
"Leading up to that goal we had some good looks and were applying some pressure on their defensive third, but we just didn't capitalize on anything," said Kaufman.
For the team's second — and final — corner kick of the game, Ibarra sent a drive across field from the right side that missed its initial target but found its way to Rennels. Without hesitation, Rennels re-directed the ball from the top left edge of the goal box with a beautiful shot that sailed beyond the reach of Jesuit senior goalkeeper Andy Swope just inside the far post upper V.
"It was just our basic setup on a corner kick," said Rennels. "Pretty much the offense goes in and I usually hang out on top. Sometimes the team knocks it back to me and I'm able to take a swing at it. It worked that time, I was just in the right place at the right time."
Rennels had actually been working on capitalizing on such moments for some time heading into Tuesday's game, and he didn't hesitate in his movements despite owning only one goal to date.
"By design, Gabe is in that role for a reason," said Kaufman. "He's not a goal-scorer by nature, he's more of a hard-nosed, put your hard hat on kind of guy. But I kept saying to him that you are going to get a goal and it's going to be a meaningful goal that's important to our success. He had a couple close ones in our last two games in similar types of situations and it was really nice to see him get one there."
The work was far from done from there, however, as Jesuit threw everything it had at the Panthers over the final 321/2 minutes. Freshman goalkeeper Mitch North was more than up to the task, managing eight saves overall, and was aided by a relentless crew of supporting defenders.
"I give all the credit to my defense, they do it for me game-in, game-out," said North of his fifth shutout since taking over in goal nine games ago. "That back four of Blain Rennels, Josue (Rodriguez), Cody Anders, Eddie Tovar ... those four deserve all the credit. I came up big on a few shots, but my defense deserves all the credit."
That back line of defense, along with the midfield play of Nate Diaz, Gabe Rennels and Humberto Alvarez, was stellar in denying a Crusader team that had 6-0 and 7-1 playoff wins under their belt entering the contest. Each player took his turn in coming up with a key stop or win on a 50-50 ball to keep as much pressure off North as possible.
Even leading scorers Brian Avila and Kory Kellum got in on the action to thwart a Jesuit team that thrives on dead-ball situations and had nine corner kicks and five free kicks on South Medford's side of the field.
"I felt if we dealt with those dead-ball situations we would be fine, and they did," said Kaufman.
Still, the Metro League champion Crusaders were able to get several good shots off. Jake Bishop was denied twice in a 20-second span by North with about 30 minutes to go, and Tyler Smalley was turned away on back-to-back kicks at near point-blank range with 17:15 to play. Bishop was denied again on a low shot to the near post three minutes later.
"It's a little bit hard to imagine a freshman having the mental capacity to deal with that kind of pressure, but I'll tell you what, the kid just has it," said Kaufman. "There's no team that can succeed at the highest points of the season without a quality goalkeeper. That was a big performance by him."
Jesuit's chance at an equalizing goal with 4:11 to play was immediately waved off after the side referee ruled Smalley was offsides on his 10-yard scoring effort in the box.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com