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Panthers brace for another air assault

South Medford's football team is certainly no stranger to lining up against Lincoln, but that won't make things any easier for the Panthers when the Class 6A state playoffs begin Friday night.

South Medford has faced the Cardinals in each of the past two seasons, coming out on top both times, but that can only build so much confidence in the locker room. Sooner or later the job has to get done on the field, and Lincoln — as usual — boasts a potent passing attack to complement a four-game winning streak entering the contest in Portland.

"They're very good; they always have been," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler of the Cardinals. "All I know is we have our hands full and it's one of the toughest draws for a first-round game you can have."

Lincoln (5-4) capped the regular season with a No. 14 power ranking to earn home-field advantage over the 19th-ranked Panthers (5-4). The teams met up north in 2008, with South nearly squandering a three-touchdown lead before settling for a 42-35 triumph. Last season, the Panthers scored a 31-9 win at Spiegelberg Stadium.

Each team appears to have momentum on their side, even if the scoreboard hasn't showed a reward. South Medford had won two straight before losing a fourth-quarter lead at top-ranked Sheldon and succumbing 37-30. The only other Southwest Conference losses for the Panthers were a 31-28 overtime battle with No. 6 Roseburg and a 14-7 standoff against Thurston.

"I think we feel pretty good about ourselves," says Singler. "We've been a funny team, sometimes we play well and sometimes we don't. I think the spirit of this team at the end of the year is good, which last year it wasn't. We've played much better, obviously, at the end of the year than we did last year. That should spell well going into the playoffs."

Two weeks ago in Eugene, junior quarterback Jack Singler had one of his best performances of the year, completing 13 of 19 passes for 230 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Receivers Matt Retzlaff, Josh Havird and Austin Griffin each stepped up to spark the passing game, which has been secondary all season to the running attack of tailbacks Kevin Gilmore and Denzel Mobley.

The Panthers, who average 211 of their 325 yards per game on the ground, will need that extra boost through the air to keep teams honest in the playoffs. Gilmore led the SWC with 1,127 yards rushing on 200 carries, while Mobley came on midway through the campaign to finish ninth at 513 yards on 75 carries.

For his part, Singler is 73-for-144 passing for 1,203 yards with 10 TDs and 12 interceptions — almost half of which came in a Game 2 loss at Beaverton.

Havird and Retzlaff each finished among the top five receivers in the conference, with the senior Havird hauling in 26 passes for 362 yards and junior Retzlaff catching 19 for 358.

Even with his team averaging nearly 29 points per game, coach Singler knows all too well that ball control will be the task of the day against Lincoln.

"They're willing to outscore you, and I don't want to get into that kind of game," he says of the Cardinals, who score 38.1 points per game but also allow 28.6.

Quarterback Peter Williams capably shoulders the burden in Lincoln's high-octane offense. Williams completed 31 of 43 passes for 504 yards and six TDs in an earlier win over Canby, and threw for another 440 yards in a loss to a good Skyview team out of Washington.

Williams came off the bench last year against the Panthers to complete 10 of 19 passes for 117 yards, but was also intercepted four times. Coach Singler says the senior signal caller has improved greatly since then.

"From what I have seen around the state this year, this is the premiere quarterback in the state," says the coach. "From watching tape around the state, and I know I haven't seen all the quarterbacks, but I know statistically this kid is as good as anybody. He throws the ball with great confidence and he's got some guys to throw to."

Chief among those targets is 6-foot-5, 195-pound senior Drake Whitehurst, who didn't play for the Cardinals last year but has definitely made up for lost time. Whitehurst caught 11 passes for 147 yards and one TD against Grant to help Lincoln clinch first place in its district. That marked the fourth time in five games Whitehurst eclipsed the century mark, and he enters Friday's game with 58 catches for 893 yards and 11 TDs.

Alex McPhee, who had six catches for 107 yards and one TD against Canby, has provided a nice complement for Whitehurst, and Williams is not afraid to spread the ball around in Lincoln's wide-open attack that features a bevy of formations.

"They throw the ball like Sheldon," coach Singler said of the pass-first approach. "At least we had a good dress rehearsal. I thought our kids really played well against the pass against Sheldon. Sheldon had to drive the ball to win that game, they didn't get plays on 40- or 60-yard passes. I thought our secondary held up well. Even though there were yards in there, they had to earn it."

The Panthers allow only 19 points and 243 yards per game, but coach Singler says slowing Lincoln won't entirely be on the defense's shoulders.

"I think a lot of it has to do with your offense," he says. "I think that's why we took Sheldon to the wire, because our offense played well. We were executing and we ran the ball well at times and we threw the ball well. We kept Sheldon off balance and I think we've got to do the same thing against Lincoln. Sometimes the best defense is offense."

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