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Injury-prone Panthers continue to forge ahead

At this point in the season, South Medford’s football team is solely focused on itself — and that’s keeping the Panthers plenty busy these days.

Seemingly with a revolving door of players in and out of the lineup due to injuries, South Medford will look to escape any chance of a second straight losing season when it plays host to winless South Eugene in Southwest Conference action Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.

It will also be senior night for 24 Panthers, many of whom are sidelined by injuries but all have helped the team keep its chin up, from the summer offseason training to now.

“We’re just trying to worry about ourselves and take care of business,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “We’re at the latter third of our season now and this is an important time now to play well.”

In other SWC action Friday, No. 6 North Medford (5-1, 3-1 SWC) is at Willamette (1-5, 1-3) in Eugene, No. 2 Grants Pass (6-0, 4-0) is at Roseburg (2-4, 1-3) and No. 5 Sheldon (5-1, 3-1) plays host to Thurston (2-4, 2-2).

In a marquee 5A Midwestern League matchup, No. 2 Ashland (6-0, 2-0 MWL) plays host to No. 3 Springfield (5-1, 2-0), while Crater (2-4, 0-2) looks to bounce back from last week’s narrow loss to the Grizzlies when it plays host to Eagle Point (0-6, 0-2).

Minus key seniors Brayden Massey, David Garcia and Hudson Thomas, among a handful of other contributors, the Panthers (4-2, 2-2 SWC) were still able to rebound from a rough loss to Grants Pass with a 38-8 rout of Roseburg last week.

One of the leaders in that resurgence against the Indians, senior tailback Josh Hall, has already been ruled out for Friday’s game because he re-aggravated a collarbone injury after running for 152 yards and one touchdown.

Senior Blake Snyder also may have suffered a broken thumb in a tackling drill this week, potentially leading to even more shuffling of the deck for Singler.

“It’s just the nature of the beast in this business,” said the 17th year head coach, “but we’ve got some good young kids and in some ways I feel a lot better about our injury situation this year than I did last year because I feel our depth is better. With the injuries last year, we couldn’t get over the hump, but this year I think we can get over the hump and remain competitive.”

Last week was a perfect example of that, with the Panthers coming out with renewed energy to take control of the game early against Roseburg. South Medford led 24-0 at halftime and, overall, limited the Indians to 129 yards of total offense

“We had good energy and got a bounce back in our step and the kids were just playing with a great effort,” said Singler. “It was probably the best defensive game we’ve had against a Roseburg team since I’ve been at South Medford. To hold them to 129 yards, that’s a pretty big effort.”

Junior defensive lineman Makai Manuwai had three first-half sacks and teamed with seniors Will Cooney and Foley Wheeler to get a good push on the front line, while junior Dillon Alfinito and seniors Kody Burton and Kevin Laupola helped key the linebacker unit with Snyder.

Offensively, senior quarterback Craig Contreras showed continued growth in adjusting to his new corps of receivers, with freshmen Chase Cota and Kaleb Franklin joining with senior Nate Brammer and sophomore Cedric Mobley working to find open space on the perimeter.

Contreras completed 14 of 20 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns against Roseburg and has passed for 1,120 yards (71-for-110) with 14 TDs and five interceptions thus far.

Thomas expects to return to the lineup Friday and is South Medford’s leading rusher with 462 yards and two TDs on 71 carries. With Hall and Snyder likely unavailable, junior Christian Ibarra and sophomore Parker Atkinson will also settle in behind fullback Manuwai (37 carries for 156 yards and five TDs).

The Panthers have also added another freshman, Jaylin Parnell, to spell Snyder at outside linebacker. Last week, South Medford started two freshmen for the first time in Singler’s career in Cota and Franklin.

In South Eugene, the Panthers face a team that is totaling about 213 yards per game on offense and allowing an average of 567 yards on defense. The Axemen are led by senior quarterback Liam Duncan, who has run for 235 yards and completed 54 of 121 passes for 555 yards, six interceptions and seven TDs. Duncan was sacked eight times in a 49-0 loss to Sheldon one week ago.

Senior running back Dakota Dixon didn’t register a carry last week but has run for 328 yards on 79 carries thus far, while John Saylor (17 catches for 216 yards and three TDs) and Sean Fabrick (15 catches for 170 yards and one TD) are South Eugene’s leading receivers.

Even though the Axemen have been outscored 44-12 on average this season, Singler said his team will be on high alert because of South Eugene’s athleticism and potential.

“That’s what we’re preaching,” he said. “A team like this is dangerous because they have nothing to lose and are coming down here with the attitude that at some point we’re going to win a game and why not South Medford.”

NORTH MEDFORD AT WILLAMETTE: North Medford built a 13-0 lead at Grants Pass before suffering a 38-21 loss to the Cavemen last week. The Black Tornado was a few big plays away from potentially gaining an important SWC road victory in GP, and North Medford will look to gain traction again Friday against Willamette.

Tornado senior quarterback Troy Fowler completed his first 13 passes against the Cavemen before finishing 24-for-33 for 286 yards, two TDs and his first two interceptions of the season. He has completed 86 of 121 passes overall for 1,305 yards and 17 TDs.

North Medford will look to get senior tailback Nick Janakes more involved as well. Janakes rushed 13 times for 49 yards to help spark his team in the first half for the Black Tornado, but only saw four carries for 8 yards in the second half after GP took the upper hand. Janakes, who also doubles as a leading tackler at linebacker, ranks second in the SWC with 745 yards and 13 TDs on 93 carries.

Tristen Holmes also showed his two-way prowess against the Cavemen after securing an interception to go with eight receptions for 89 yards and one score, while Will Spence had a big game after stepping in for the injured Isaac Grether and caught four passes for 88 yards to go with steady play at linebacker.

Defensively, Calvinn Casaday and Tre Holmes anchored a good effort on the line against GP, which scored on five plays of 28 yards or more — including two from 60 yards or more.

Willamette is averaging around 297 yards of total offense and 329 yards of total defense, and has picked up steam since a slow start behind the hard-charging runs of tailback Sam Aguirre, who ranks just behind Janakes with 743 yards and six TDs on 106 carries.

Michael Young has also provided a spark in the run game with 172 yards and four TDs on 26 carries, while quarterback Kosey Mitchell is a dual threat with 152 yards rushing to go with 656 yards passing (56-for-125) with three TDs and nine interceptions.

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