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Saxons trip up Panthers

HILLSBORO — South Medford goalie Mitch North sat dejectedly on the team's metal bench, then pounded it with his hands several times. Some Panthers took off their silver medals, not sure what to make of a second place finish in the Class 6A boys soccer state playoffs.

After it sunk it, though, South Medford seemed to be OK finishing the season as state runners-up after losing to South Salem 2-1 in the championship game Saturday at Liberty High School.

"Second is better than third, fourth or nothing at all," Panthers senior defender Cody Anders said.

Second in state is higher than South Medford's third-place finish in the Southwest Conference. The Panthers (13-6) nearly pulled off a stunning conclusion to the season, winning four state playoff games by shutout, and blanking South Salem for a half during Saturday's final.

"Of course, we would have liked first," forward Kory Kellum said. "But to get to the finals after all we've gone through, I'm happy with that. I just wish we could have played to our potential."

"We squeezed a lot of juice out of this lemon," South Medford coach Dave Kaufman said. "I think a lot of people thought South Salem would hand our heads to us. We gave them a lot of fight."

South Salem (16-0-2) was the only Class 6A boys team not to lose a regular season game in 2009. The Saxons, winners of the Central Valley Conference, gave up six goals this season, the fewest among Class 6A boys.

There was reason to believe this could be a long night for the Panthers. Yet at halftime, South Medford was trying to figure out how to preserve, and possibly add to, a 1-0 lead.

The Panthers controlled the first half, and had proof thanks to a goal in the ninth minute by Kellum. Humberto Alvarez fed Kellum with a pass near the goal, and the senior forward flicked it past South Salem goalie Kyle Foster to put the Panthers in front 1-0.

But after halftime, it was as if South Salem flipped a switch and became an entirely different team. The Saxons spent most of the second half blasting away at South Medford's goal, and the pressure eventually resulted in two goals and a state championship.

Ten minutes into the second half, South Medford dodged a bullet that might have indicated this was going to be the Panthers' night.

South Salem's Pablo Ceja and North collided near the top of the penalty box going for the ball. Ceja emerged with the ball, and fired a shot at an open goal. But an alert Anders, seeing North was in trouble, backed up and deflected Ceja's shot just as it was about to go into the goal, sending the ball over the crossbar.

But South Salem had more. Much more during a second half when the Saxons outshot South Medford 8-1.

Both of South Salem's second-half goals came off set plays. The first came during the 57th minute, when Gabriel Benavides' 30-yard free kick found Ceja, who headed the ball into the goal to tie the game at 1-1.

The Saxons took the lead for good nine minutes later. North was trying to collect a loose ball, but in doing so, grabbed it with his hands just outside the penalty box, resulting in a free kick. Benavides booted the short free kick across the penalty box, and after a bit of chaos, it landed on the foot of Ethan Jones, who finished to put South Salem ahead 2-1.

In retrospect, Kaufman said it would have been better if his freshman goalie "kicked it out of bounds. But we've ridden that horse for a few weeks, and we wouldn't be here without his performances. "¦ It was a risk I'm OK with him taking."

Now it was South Medford's turn to become the aggressor, but South Salem gave the Panthers few chances.

"They stepped it up in the second half and we weren't up for it," Anders said.

Kellum said he didn't think South Salem became a different team in the second half, but admitted "a lot of 50-50 balls didn't go our way."

For South Salem, the championship was a breakthrough event. It not only was the first soccer state title for the school, but the first time a Salem school has ever won a boys state championship. It was also the first state title for Saxons coach Eric Johansen, who has coached South Salem since 1981.

"He's a great man. They deserve it," Kaufman said.

South Medford's Humberto Alvarez is tackled by South Salem's Cameron French during Saturday's 6A state championship game. - Craig Mitchelldyer