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Late-season spark

If there was a word to describe Kodie Artner's junior season on the South Medford boys soccer team, "frustrating" would jump to the top of the list.

The thing is, it wasn't supposed to go this way.

Artner was a late addition to the Panther lineup last season as a sophomore and made a definite contribution off the bench during South Medford's run to the Class 6A state championship game. With more playing time seemingly available his junior year, Artner had high hopes of being one of the team's top scorers during another hopeful deep run in the playoffs.

Flash forward a year and Artner is just happy to be back on the pitch. A tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in your knee will do that for you.

"Every day I'm still getting better," says Artner, who turns 17 on Nov. 21. "I still can't last a whole game for my endurance, but I definitely like being back out there."

In all honesty, there weren't many who believed Artner would be able to have any impact this season for the Panthers after a collision with an opposing goalkeeper during the Rogue Valley Cup U17 finals last May put him out of commission.

"It wasn't looking like I was going to play at all," adds Artner, who was on crutches for two months and then underwent physical therapy. "No one really knew, but it was all going really slow at first."

So slow, in fact, that Panthers head coach Dave Kaufman had to pull the 5-foot-10, 150-pound center forward aside and brace him for the reality of the situation.

"I told him, I know you don't want to hear this but I really fully anticipate you contributing for only a couple games this season," recalls Kaufman. "I'm realistic and I didn't want him to get his hopes up. I told him, if we can get a couple games out of you and build for next year, that would be a bonus."

While that's not exactly music to an athlete's ears, Artner continued to rebuild the muscle lost in his leg and feverishly worked to at least live up to Kaufman's expectations. All the while, he had a first-hand look at a Panther team that was struggling to find its way in the early stages of the season.

"Just sitting on the bench, barely being able to run was disappointing, definitely," says Artner. "I felt like I could be helping my team and it was just frustrating having to sit and watch."

But as Artner began taking shape, so did South Medford's soccer fortunes. A few tweaks to the lineup and added health elsewhere on the roster helped turn around the season, just in time for Artner's return.

When Artner finally rejoined the varsity team on Oct. 19 against Crater, the Panthers were in dire need of an undefeated run to close out the regular season. As much as he wanted to contribute right away, though, it wasn't in the cards for Artner.

"He looked like a newborn calf and things just weren't fully connecting from the head to the feet," says Kaufman.

Such a critique was well-deserved, says Artner.

"It was a struggle at first so it was definitely frustrating," he says. "My touch was off and my speed wasn't there and it was frustrating not being able to stay out there without being tired in 20 minutes."

In his second game back, however, Artner finally came alive with a goal and an assist to lead the Panthers to a key 2-0 win over Roseburg. Three days later, he scored twice in a 5-1 win over Grants Pass in a regular season finale that secured a share of the 6A Southern Oregon Hybrid championship with North Medford.

"Scoring my first goal in Roseburg turned everything around," says Artner. "I just gained a lot of confidence from my team and myself. It felt good to get the goal and win the game, especially because we needed the win so badly."

And just like that, the Panthers enter the 6A state playoffs undefeated in their last five games and with a new dimension to their offense.

"He really came in and just provided an extra spark for us," says Kaufman. "Because of his pace, he definitely provides an element of surprise because he's not one that looks blazingly fast but he is very fast."

Artner also provides a different look because, according to Kaufman, he doesn't fall into the robotic definition of what many American soccer players are like.

"We create very predictable soccer players and it almost becomes scripted in where the ball goes when you're here and he's there," adds the coach. "Teams and players that are successful are unpredictable, because they'll create something out of nothing. Kodie provides some of that for us. He's still sharpening his skills and technique after being off for so long, but he's so athletic and fast, he can be on the end of things where you think there's no way he's going to get there."

Although Artner is still not in match shape, his presence has helped retool the Panthers' attack. Sophomore Humberto Alvarez leads the way with 14 goals and four assists, while Colt Sauers has been a welcome addition from the junior varsity ranks with six assists in South's final three games.

"Humberto's a great player and just does so many things," adds Artner. "He pretty much gave me those goals by passing it right to my feet in front of the goal."

Felipe Sanchez is South's second-leading scorer with five goals and one assist despite missing the Panthers final four games in an injury-filled campaign. Defender Caleb Wright also has been a key contributor with six assists for a Panther offense that scored 20 of its 29 goals in the second half of the season.

With his team peaking as the playoffs loom on the horizon — South Medford plays at South Eugene on Friday night — Artner couldn't be more excited about the team's future.

"I'm definitely excited about the playoffs," he says. "I don't want to sound too cocky, but I really like our team and the talent we have on our team."

The Panthers (7-5-2) and Axemen (10-3-2), former Southwest Conference rivals, played to a 1-all draw in the season opener for both teams on Sept. 7. Both teams have come a long way since then, with South Eugene sporting 49 goals against 18 allowed compared to a 29 to 14 ratio for the Panthers.

In other first round games slated for Saturday, North Medford plays at Gresham, Grants Pass is at Tigard and Roseburg plays host to Central Catholic despite entering the playoffs as the SOH's No. 3 seed. The 32-team bracket is structured by virtue of a team's final power ranking and not by league standing. For the SOH, Roseburg had the top power ranking of 16th, followed by North Medford (20th), South Medford (24th) and Grants Pass (26th).

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

Junior Kodie Artner leads South Medford into a Class 6A play-in game against South Eugene on Friday. - Andy Atkinson