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Getting the job done

There are some players on a football team that coaches can't wait to talk about, and more often than not they aren't the ones making headlines or piling up eye-popping statistics.

These special few are the ones who provide inspiration through all their perspiration.

They're the ones whose sole focus is helping the team in any way possible, and have proven themselves dependable in any setting.

They're players like South Medford's Mark Mexia.

At 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds, Mexia isn't the first player you notice on the field, but he demands your attention with his steady contributions at fullback, inside linebacker and on special teams.

"He's a blue-collar player, a no-nonsense guy who is probably one of our top team leaders just by his presence and his play," says Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "He's just one of those inspirational guys. He doesn't want to come off the field, he really doesn't. It's his senior year, he's worked hard to get to this point and is making the most of it by having a heckuva year on both sides of the ball."

At fullback, Mexia has helped set the tone for a rushing attack that averages almost 195 yards per game with his lead blocking and opportunistic runs for first downs. On the flip side, he has helped spearhead a defense that ranks first in the Southwest Conference in total defense (185.5 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (14.5 points allowed per game).

Add to that the countless times spent running down the field on special teams coverage, and Mexia may be around the football more than anyone else on the field.

"He plays every down hard, he practices hard and you can always count on him because he's there," says Singler. "He's just one of those seniors that you enjoy coaching."

When South Medford's first- and second-string right guards on the offensive line were out of commission due to injury, Mexia even stepped right in and took on that responsibility for two days in practice earlier this season.

"That's just the kind of kid he is," Singler proudly adds. "He understands the offense and knows what they do, so he just stepped right in there to help us out."

For his part, Mexia is pretty unassuming about his role on the team. It takes an entire crew to get the job done, and Mexia says he's only trying to do his part to the best of his abilities.

"I just feel like I have to be there for the team and support my brothers," says the 17-year-old. "For me, it's just team first. I don't want to take a play off for them."

That has not been an issue, on either side of the ball.

"You look at who's making plays and who's dependable and always there, and Mark is one of those guys," says Mike Johnston, South Medford's defensive coordinator. "We really need him on defense, but Bill would probably make an equal argument that they really need him to run the ball inside on offense."

Offensively, Mexia's main duties involve working with the offensive line to clear a path for the likes of tailbacks Kevin Gilmore and Denzel Mobley. The fullback gets a handful of carries every now and then, and has made the most of them by gaining 91 yards and one touchdown on 19 attempts.

"He's really moved the chains for us," says Singler. "He's quick, he's got good feet and he gets those tough yards inside. That's really helped us."

As has his willingness to bowl into anyone in his path as a lead blocker — an assignment that's filled with little glamour and many headaches.

"I love it, though," Mexia says of his fullback duties. "I love blocking for Gilmore, especially. I just love making a play for him, to open it up and see if he can finish it off. It's my favorite thing to do right now, it's exciting for me."

"Everybody loves carrying the ball if they have a chance," he adds, "but blocking is fine, too. As long as I'm on the field playing, it doesn't really matter what I do."

While his role is more of a facilitator on offense, Mexia's defensive duties require him to be more of a finisher. He spent time at rover and outside linebacker last season, but really has taken to his duties inside this year.

"It fits me more, I guess, because I can come off blocks a little bit better and it's easier for me to read stuff," he says.

Making things a little easier is the ability to play behind a defensive line that has more than held its own this year thanks to the play of players like Curran Shaw, Jimmy Ditty, Kevin Thibeault, Desmond Harrington and Stefan Ceron.

"What works out good for Mark is he doesn't have to be huge because the guys in front of him are pretty tough so he can kinda flow to the ball," says Johnston. "He's got excellent speed, he's very strong, he's a solid tackler and you know he's always going to give you 100 percent. He's a player with a big heart and leads by example."

All those characteristics have helped Mexia serve as an extension of the coaches on the field, often helping line players up in the defensive front seven to adjust to the myriad of offenses out there from the spread offense zone reads to fly sweep coverage and, coming Friday, the throwback veer attack of Roseburg.

"It is a lot to learn but it's just pretty much your fundamentals of football," he says. "As long as everybody's there in the right spots and you know what to do by filling your own gaps and reading your assignments, you'll have a good defense."

It also doesn't hurt to have someone like Mexia at your disposal.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

South Medford senior fullback Mark Mexia has turned in several key runs this season to help the Panthers move the chains. - Denise Baratta