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Lincoln rallies for wild victory over Panthers

South Medford put itself in prime position during Friday night's Class 6A football state-playoff clash with Lincoln, but the Panthers couldn't close the deal during the first-round affair in Portland.

In a tense back-and-forth battle, the Cardinals rallied for their fifth straight triumph by scoring on their first four possessions of the second half to erase a 21-7 deficit and claim a 35-31 win.

"This game was just a mirror image of the Sheldon game," South Medford head coach Bill Singler said, alluding to his team's regular-season finale against the top-ranked Irish. "We were up at halftime, playing fine and for some reason we lose our pizazz in the second half."

The contest marked the fourth time South Medford (5-5) has lost by seven points or less this season, with all four coming against playoff qualifiers and three against teams ranked among the state's top 10.

"It's frustrating when you look at the season how close we are and yet how far we are," said Singler. "We're competing but we're not finishing. We didn't find a way to close games this year."

Even with star tailback Kevin Gilmore sidelined by a sprained ankle after a 10-yard gain on the Panthers' first possession, South Medford held steady in taking a 7-0 lead. Junior quarterback Jack Singler connected with Austin Griffin on a 6-yard pass to open the scoring with 5:39 to go in the first quarter.

After Lincoln's Blake Kingsley answered with the first of his three touchdown runs, the Panthers caught a break on a special teams miscue that saw a snap sail over Cardinals punter Alex McPhee and get downed at the Lincoln 2-yard line. Junior Denzel Mobley, who had taken over for Gilmore, scored the go-ahead TD moments later.

A similar scenario played out on Lincoln's ensuing series with another botched punt attempt, but this time the Panthers were held out of the end zone when fullback Mark Mexia was denied on fourth down at the 1-yard line. Undaunted, South's defense held Lincoln and embarked on a 62-yard drive that resulted in a 1-yard dive by Mobley with 60 seconds to go until halftime.

"We talked about establishing ourselves early in the second half and not letting them gather any momentum," said coach Singler, "but we did the exact opposite."

The Cardinals (6-4) needed only five plays and about 11/2 minutes to march for a score to open the third quarter, then a misread by Singler resulted in an interception that gave the ball right back to Lincoln. Senior quarterback Peter Williams, following a fourth-down conversion, then found Drake Whitehurst for a 6-yard score and the Panthers' lead was nullified in a matter of about seven minutes.

"One thing we talked about was we couldn't get into a scoring-fest with them and that's exactly what ended up happening," said coach Singler. "We knew that wouldn't be good because they're more potent and we're more methodical. It just caught up to us after that. They got us into having to score every possession in the second half and it just didn't work out."

The Panthers were able to keep pace for a while, with Parker Thomas drilling a 31-yard field goal to push the Panthers back on top 24-21 with 11 minutes to play. Key to the drive was the return of Gilmore, who had his ankle heavily wrapped but still managed a handful of key carries.

"He played well in the third quarter and gave us energy running the ball but he wasn't at full strength," added coach Singler.

A 15-yard hookup from Williams to McPhee on the ensuing series put the lead back in Lincoln's hands, but Mobley returned the kickoff to the Lincoln 35 and, after a Matt Retzlaff reception, Gilmore powered his way to a couple big runs. The senior scooted into the end zone on a 3-yard run with 6:40 to play to give South a 31-28 advantage.

Less than two minutes later, however, Kingsley scored on a 1-yard run to put Lincoln back on top.

Kingsley then halted the Panthers' next drive with an interception on a third-and-13 pass by Singler. South was able to hold Lincoln out of the end zone on its final drive, but McPhee's punt was downed at the Panther 4 with less than one minute to play.

Singler was able to advance the ball about 30 yards before ultimately throwing his third interception of the game with 9.5 seconds to play. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 59 yards and one score in the first half and finished 11-for-17 for 108 yards in his playoff debut.

The Panthers lost Mexia and Havird to shoulder injuries early in the second half, while lineman Jimmy Ditty was slowed throughout by a knee injury. Retzlaff was the beneficiary of Lincoln's double coverage early on Havird, then fought through the extra attention to lead the Panthers with seven receptions.

Williams passed for 254 yards to guide the Cardinals into a matchup at Aloha.

South Medford 7 14 0 10 — 31

Lincoln 7 0 14 14 — 35

SM — Griffin 6 pass from Singler (Thomas kick)

L — Kingsley 1 run (McPhee kick)

SM — Mobley 2 run (Thomas kick)

SM — Mobley 1 run (Thomas kick)

L — Kingsley 4 run (McPhee kick)

L — Whitehurst 6 pass from Williams (McPhee kick)

SM — FG Thomas 31

L — McPhee 15 pass from Williams (McPhee kick)

SM — Gilmore 3 run (Thomas kick)

L — Kingsley 1 run (McPhee kick)

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