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No. 1 Irish pull away

South Medford head coach Bill Singler had no illusions heading into Friday night's clash with top-ranked Sheldon for the Southwest Conference football title.

On Tuesday, Singler made it clear that he believed Sheldon and second-ranked Lake Oswego were playing on another level and the rest of the state's Class 6A teams, his included, were battling just to be included in their midst.

Did he think his undefeated and third-ranked Panthers could dethrone the mighty Irish? Sure.

Did he think it would take a near-perfect effort to pull off such a coup d'etat? Certainly.

Knowing all that, however, Singler was still taken aback by how impressive Sheldon can be, especially on defense, following Friday's regular-season finale at Spiegelberg Stadium.

Sheldon returned two of five interceptions for touchdowns and held South Medford to 190 yards of total offense during a 35-12 triumph that was closer than the final score indicated. The Irish (9-0, 7-0 SWC) took a 21-12 lead at the end of the third quarter and added an interception return for a score with 18.9 seconds to play to extend their margin of victory.

"This is the toughest defense I've seen in a long time," said Singler, whose Panthers dropped to 8-1 and 6-1. "My goodness, up front they're physical and quick. Those two defensive ends (Sam McCaskill and Kameron Canaday), I knew they were good and they were the real deal in person. (Dawson) Housley, (Connor) Strahm ... you go down across the line and it's tough to move the ball against this group."

Strahm was unmistakably the player of the game Friday, notching a pair of touchdown receptions to go with a TD run and an interception return for a score. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior finished with 12 catches for 102 yards and two interceptions.

Sheldon capitalized on a few South Medford miscues to open a 14-0 lead only three minutes into the contest. The Panthers were whistled for an offside penalty on the opening kickoff, then were nabbed for a personal foul face mask penalty after a big return by Ryan Land to put the Irish offense on the field at first-and-10 from the South Medford 22-yard line.

It took six plays but Sheldon finally punched it in thanks to a 4-yard TD pass from senior Dillon Miller to Strahm, who had been pushed back 1 yard on successive runs prior to the lofted pass into the end zone.

Things turned from bad to worse seconds later when, on South's second play from scrimmage, Strahm stepped in front of a pass intended for Matt Retzlaff in the flat and raced untouched 21 yards into the end zone.

"We knew they liked to throw the ball out on the flats and we called the defense for it and I got a pretty good jump on the ball and took it in from there," said Strahm.

Although the game appeared to have the makings for a potential avalanche of scoring by Sheldon, the Panthers simply wouldn't let that happen.

"We were down 14-0 in the first three minutes but we stuck together," said Retzlaff. "We're a family and that's what I love about these guys."

South marched from its own 25 on the ensuing series, only to be denied by an end zone interception by Strahm. The Panthers held Sheldon on fourth down on the South Medford 28 before giving it back to the Irish when Sean Bellotti nabbed the first of his two interceptions following a high pass by Jack Singler that was tipped by receiver Adrian Garcia and Bellotti before it fell into the Sheldon players hands for good.

Even with all that, the Panthers kept chugging away. Senior safety Jake McCoy made a huge defensive play when he perfectly timed a hit on Strahm two series later in the end zone, dislodging a potential touchdown catch on a fourth-down play from the Panther 27.

South Medford's determination finally paid off in points on the team's ensuing drive, with Singler connecting with Retzlaff for a pair of big plays, the final coming on fourth-and-three when Retzlaff found an opening in the middle and then dodged traffic to race 40 yards for a score.

A delay of game penalty pushed the point-after attempt back 5 yards, and the kick by Brandon Lupton was blocked to leave the score at 14-6. That proved to be all the scoring in the first half, leaving the Irish with their closest contest to that point this year.

"Too bad we had to get off to the kind of start we did but the thing about it, our kids battled and that's what you want to see because you're going to face adversity in football games, especially against good teams," said coach Singler. "Our guys didn't wilt, they didn't cave in. Other teams would've been behind 35-0 at half and our guys just kept battling and battling and finally they just wore us down."

But not before the Panthers made it even more interesting coming out of the locker room. Retzlaff set South Medford up on its second series with a scintillating 74-yard punt return down the home team's sideline, going from his own 13 to the Sheldon 13 in thrilling fashion.

A 12-yard strike from Singler to McCoy — in for an injured Garcia — set up a 1-yard plunge by Singler to make it 14-12. Singler's ensuing two-point conversion attempt was intercepted by Mitch Carman when he rolled right and eventually just had to throw the ball up for grabs back across the field.

Desmond Harrington's sack of Miller forced Sheldon to give the ball back to the Panthers, but their series went nowhere and the Irish took advantage of getting the ball back at midfield. Miller lofted a touch pass to Carman, who outjumped Kirk Eastman and Pat Alexander for the ball and darted 33 yards to set up an eventual 6-yard score by Strahm with 35.7 seconds to go in the third quarter.

Bellotti's second interception two plays later again put the Irish in Panther territory and they cashed in on an 18-yard hookup from Miller to Strahm that saw the quarterback survey the field from side to side for what seemed like an eternity before his teammate finally gained separation.

That touchdown with 8:47 to go all but sewed up Sheldon's fifth SWC title, with Ivan Faulhaber's grab of a tipped pass toward Christian Bowley and 15-yard scamper officially icing matters with 18.9 seconds to play.

Miller completed 27 of 43 passes for 215 yards and two scores and Land ran 18 times for 135 yards, but the Irish were still held well below their season average with 325 yards of total offense.

"I thought our defense did really well against that kind of offense because they're the real deal," said Retzlaff. "They have great athletes and great attackers all over, especially Strahm. Definitely the best team in the state right there."

Strahm was complimentary of the Panthers as well following the game.

"We knew coming into the season that not every game's going to be easy," Strahm said of the one-score contest through almost three quarters. "South Medford's a great team, hat's off to them. They do things the right way down here. Our team was just prepared, we practiced hard all week and came out on top."

"Great crowd down here, biggest crowd we've played in all year, and I think our coaches prepared us well," he added. "I can't say enough how great of a team (the Panthers) are. I wouldn't be surprised if we see them later down in the playoffs."

Retzlaff finished with three catches for 61 yards and Denzel Mobley added 40 yards rushing on 12 carries, but the Panthers simply struggled to find open lanes at any point of the field. Singler, who had two interceptions all season, matched his career-high with five picks in 17-for-30 passing for 147 yards.

"I think the main thing was just keeping them in front of us because they have playmakers on their team," Strahm said of slowing South. "Retzlaff is an amazing player and Jack's a great quarterback, we just needed to keep them in front of us and concentrate on tackling and wrapping up well."

The Panthers played the final 21/2 quarters without Garcia, one of their top playmakers on both sides of the ball, due to a sprained ankle.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

South Medford's Denzel Mobley carries the ball against Sheldon on Friday. - Julia Moore