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South Medford faces stiff test in second-ranked Jesuit

When the second-ranked Jesuit football team comes to town today, the hope for South Medford is that a few intangibles may help level the playing field for the second-round affair.

The fact that the Panthers (7-3) were themselves ranked as high as No. 3 in the state at one point doesn't hurt, as well as South Medford's undefeated record at home.

One could also say that the Panthers have yet to put together a complete performance, meaning their best game could still be ahead of them.

Then there's the fact that tonight's state playoff game marks only the second time in Jesuit history that the Crusaders (9-1) have traveled south of Roseburg.

All of that makes for an interesting backdrop when the teams meet at Spiegelberg Stadium, but the truth of the matter is football's a game that usually boils down to things far more basic.

"I know it's coach-speak," said Jesuit coach Ken Potter, "but the game is won on how well you block and tackle. That's it, there really isn't anything more important than that."

Jesuit is coming off a 41-0 thrashing of McKay in the first round of the state playoffs, while South Medford took the long road north and earned a 20-13 triumph at Oregon City last Friday.

"We want to play well (tonight), that's our expectation," said South Medford coach Bill Singler. "We want to give Jesuit our best shot and see where we go from there. I think that the win last week did a lot for us. It got us back on track and stopped a two-game skid, where we hadn't lost three in a row since 2006."

Still, Singler is well aware of the challenge imposed by facing a Jesuit team that has absolutely taken it up a notch since a 24-23 win over Westview on Oct. 9. The Crusaders have outscored teams since then by an average margin of 44-6.

"They're a senior-laden team and obviously very well-coached," said the South coach. "We hope to slow them down. We just don't want them wringing up points as fast as Sheldon did against us. We need to slow them down so that if they're scoring they're driving and having to earn it rather than three- or four-play drives."

The Crusaders certainly have speed to burn in wingback Keanon Lowe, who is the reigning 100-meter champion in the Metro League, and combine that with the power of running back Jordan Talley and tight end Jacob Wark.

Lowe, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior, has signed with the University of Washington and joined Talley in rushing for three touchdowns in last week's rout. Lowe has carried the ball 74 times for 651 yards and 10 scores and hauled in 28 passes for 410 yards and six TDs. He's also the Crusaders' leading tackler as a do-it-all free safety.

"What's nice about Keanon Lowe, besides being one of the most talented players I've ever coached, he also works hard in practice and is very, very humble," said Potter. "He doesn't say much, he just goes out and works hard."

Talley (5-11, 180) says plenty with his work behind an improved offensive line and an assist from fullback Jack Nelson. The junior running back has rushed 190 times for 1,235 yards and 18 TDs.

Senior quarterback Jeff Eloriagga has been efficient in guiding the Crusaders to a near-perfect season — their lone loss coming in the season opener to powerhouse Skyline High of Washington. Eloriagga has completed 88 of 164 passes for 1,099 yards, 14 touchdowns and only one interception.

Besides Lowe, Eloriagga's main target has been the 6-4, 242-pound Wark, who has 23 receptions for 356 yards and doubles as an impact defensive end. The senior Wark is being recruited by Vanderbilt, Air Force and Navy.

"It might just have to be that we have the mind set to try to outscore this team because I don't think we're going to hold them down completely unless they beat themselves and turn the ball over," said Singler. "Weather could be a factor, too, since it's supposed to be windy and rainy, so you never know."

Points, however, have been few and far between against the Crusaders since the aforementioned Westview game. Jesuit has made it a habit of forcing turnovers and turning those into touchdowns.

"I think after that (Westview) game we had a pretty good talk as a team to just stop thinking so much, stop looking at football assignments as much and just start playing," said Potter. "Defensively I think we got a ton better because I felt like we just started running around, flying to the football, making plays instead of thinking about what's my assignment."

Linebackers Taylor Martinek, Dominique Forrest and Nick Alfieri have paved the way for Jesuit's stout defense with a nice blend of strength and athleticism for the aggressive-minded Crusaders.

South Medford's defense is coming off its own strong performance, allowing only 173 yards and one touchdown to Oregon City — and that coming on a wild tipped-ball play. The Pioneers' other score came via a blocked field goal return.

"I liked the way we played defense," said Singler. "I thought we brought a more aggressive temperament to the game than we had against Roseburg and Sheldon. We did a great job of holding them down, and they were a very physical group."

A key performance was turned in by reserve Tate Ficek, who came on to replace an injured Dylan Albertson at outside linebacker last week.

"He plays with a nice enthusiasm and he plays fast," Singler said of Ficek, who has moved up from the JV team. "He deserved the opportunity and got in there and really played well and made the most of his opportunity."

As vital as it will be for the Panther defense to be at its best tonight, that likely goes double for South Medford's offense.

"Offensively we have to help our defense by keeping them on the sidelines as long as we can," said Singler. "We'll need to muster up some drives of our own and try to score when we get into position."

"We have the ability when we play well to move the ball and put points on the board," he added, "and our defense has shown well in various stages of the season an ability to stop people. Hopefully we can put it all together (tonight)."

Senior quarterback Josh Milhollin threw three touchdowns passes a week ago, giving him 19 scores against only three interceptions. Overall, he has completed 144 of 236 passes for 1,907 yards.

Milhollin has also done well to spread the ball around to his bevy of receiving options, with Allen Fitzsimmons catching 44 passes for 679 yards and seven TDs to lead the way. Josh Havird (37 for 521 yards and eight TDs) and Brandon Dollarhide (27 for 447 and four TDs) have also been key contributors.

"They're scary because they've played very well at home, they're very balanced and I know with Bill they're well-coached," said Potter. "(Milhollin) looks like he throws the ball as well as anybody we've played and they have kids who can really catch it."

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