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Panthers aim to get back on track

Just about anything that could go wrong did go wrong last season for the South Medford football team.

Through it all, however, the 3-7 Panthers kept their heads up and never lost their competitive drive.

That tenacity will be the foundation upon which head coach Bill Singler hopes will bring a return of fortunes at South Medford, which hadn’t experienced a losing season since 2006.

“The panic button was never pushed,” Singler said of an injury-plagued season where four losses came down to the final drive. “Obviously we were distraught how we lost some of those games but we never lost sight as to who we are as a program, and it kinda carried us through to keep that competitive spirit going when it could’ve been taken away from us.”

After averaging seven wins over the past seven years, the Panthers will look to get back on track with a limited number of returning starters but an extremely cohesive unit. South Medford has 22 seniors on the roster, with four returning as offensive starters and three on the defensive side of the ball.

“Last year we had a lot of talented kids and we had a great team,” said senior lineman Will Cooney, “but we didn’t really come together and play together as a team. We’re really bonded this year.”

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Cooney (left tackle) joins fellow senior Jahan Kahusi (center) as anchors to a promising offensive line built to provide throwing time for returning quarterback Craig Contreras and room to roam for a stable of Panther running backs.

“I’m seeing some really good things out of our line,” said the senior Contreras. “They’re all locked in and (offensive line coach Don Casebier) has them ready and I’m excited for that.”

Lack of continuity in the starting lineup limited South Medford to 24 points and 321 yards of total offense per game a year ago, but the Panthers are hopeful that a healthy campaign will allow those figures to rise.

Contreras completed nearly half of his passes during the regular season (80-for-166) for 1,240 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, but will have an entirely new cast of receivers this time around. Seniors Brayden Massey (6-1, 170) and David Garcia (6-2, 155) have each had a good offseason, while freshman Chase Cota (6-3, 170) — son of former NFL standout Chad Cota — is a blossoming playmaker in his own right.

“You don’t want to put too much on Cota, but he’s really had a good summer and he catches your eye,” said Singler. “He kinda reminds me of Kyle (Singler) coming in as a freshman: a tall, gangly kid that just loves football and wants to contribute. He’s got the pedigree and that sense of urgency behind him and he’s doing well, but we’ll see.”

The heart of their success will depend on Contreras (6-4, 200), who has made strides ever since taking over at quarterback midway through his sophomore season. The laid-back Contreras is in the best shape of his life as he moves toward a breakout final season.

“He looks better, he’s in better condition, his arm is stronger and he has good stamina to throw in practice,” said Singler. “He’s had a good summer throwing the ball and been solid for us in all that he’s done.”

Contreras’ best action may simply be in turning to hand the football off to a host of running backs, led by senior returning starter Josh Hall. The 5-7, 165-pound Hall was thrust into the spotlight due to injury woes last year and responded by finishing fifth in the Southwest Conference by gaining 660 yards on 125 carries in the regular season. Hall had his summer training cut short by a broken collarbone suffered during the Gold Beach team camp, but should be available once the season starts tonight at Sunset.

A silver lining to Hall’s absence has been the emergence in the backfield of seniors Hudson Thomas and Blake Snyder and junior Makai Manuwai, who will move from offensive guard to fullback. Thomas (5-10, 200) and Manuwai (6-1, 240) possess a unique blend of speed and physicality, while Snyder (5-9, 170) runs hard on every snap.

“Our running back position looks to be solid if we can stay healthy,” said Singler. “Most of them are seniors and they’re strong and they mix it up with a blend of speed and physicalness.”

“We’re at our best when we are running the ball and don’t have to rely on throwing the ball 40 times a game,” added Singler, who enters his 17th season at South Medford. “We’ve got to try ways to make first downs and be physical, and I think having a few backs to rotate in and out, we have a chance at that.”

Defensively, the Panthers allowed an average of 396 yards per game and will need to have a host of first-year starters step up in order to contend in a loaded SWC.

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