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South controls playoff destiny

Of all the unclear things heading into the regular-season finale on Friday, there is one certainty for South Medford’s football team: Win and the Panthers are into the Class 6A state playoffs.

With only four positions guaranteed a spot in the state playoffs out of the Southwest Conference this season, the top three positions are already locked up by Grants Pass, North Medford and Sheldon.

South Medford (5-3, 3-3 SWC) has a one-game advantage on the fourth and final automatic bid, but all that could go into a tailspin should Thurston (2-6, 2-4) manage a victory on its home turf for senior night. The playoff picture gets more murky should Roseburg (3-5, 2-4) come up with a corresponding win at South Eugene (0-8, 0-6), creating the potential of a three-way tie for fourth place in the SWC.

“We’ve kind of said this is our first playoff game,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “We’re wiping the slate clean and starting over with a new season. This is our playoff game to determine home or away.”

As the No. 15 team in the Oregon School Activities Association power rankings, South Medford has a chance of earning a home game to open the playoffs with a win over Thurston. The top 16 teams get home games and, since the Panthers share Spiegelberg Stadium with North Medford, that likely would mean a doubleheader to open the playoffs next Friday unless one team opts to play Saturday.

All that becomes a moot point unless South Medford can beat Thurston and clinch the SWC’s No. 4 spot outright. A Thurston win, combined with a Roseburg loss, would give the Colts the head-to-head tiebreaker over South Medford for the automatic bid. The Panthers would then have to hope their power ranking is among the top eight holdovers for an at-large bid.

Should Thurston and Roseburg win, according to South Medford Athletic Director Dennis Murphy, the three-way tiebreaker for the No. 4 bid – since head-to-head and wins over the top three teams are not viable alternatives – would turn to the highest rated team in the final power rankings. Entering the finale, Roseburg is 28th and Thurston 30th in that list.

For Singler, what comes with a victory simply isn’t as important as gaining that victory for his injury-ravaged squad.

“More than anything else we just want to finish strong,” said the coach. “We have a chance to finish out winning three of our last four which, in this league, is pretty darn good.”

Even though the Colts enter the contest with only two wins under their belts, Singler said nothing will come easy when his Panthers play on the grass field in Springfield. Thurston has won three of the four meetings since joining the SWC in 2010, including the last two matchups with South Medford.

“Thurston’s going to play their best game against us because they always do,” said Singler.

“We’ve got to go up and know that they’re going to give us their best and that the weather could be a condition with the field being grass, which we’re not used to playing on,” he added. “We know it’s going to be a donnybrook and we’ve got to be ready to bring our best football.”

Thurston, which has been beset by its own injuries thus far, is coming off a 42-17 loss to Roseburg in which the Indians racked up 347 of their 472 total yards on the ground. Overall, the Colts are allowing an average of 425 yards and 41.6 points per game and countering that with 285 yards of offense and 20.1 points.

Senior Josh Murray and junior Logan Marsh have shared quarterback duties in recent weeks for Thurston’s spread offense attack, with Murray having completed 54 of 94 passes for 579 yards with five interceptions and three touchdowns and Marsh 32-for-39 passing for 238 yards, two interceptions and three TDs. Both are threats to escape the pocket should a play break down.

Junior Joel Green (5-foot-6, 160 pounds) has helped sparked the running game in the absence of injured senior stalwarts Jacob Patterson and Johnny Contreras. Green has run for 195 yards on 34 carries, while Patterson and Contreras each average around 6 yards per carry.

Junior sprinter Robert Connor (6-6, 175) has been Thurston’s leading receiver with 305 yards and one TD on 25 receptions. Connor won the 400-meter SWC title last year in 48.83 seconds and was third in the 200 (22.39). The Colts also spread the ball well with Cade Morton (13 catches for 182 yards and two TDs), Connor Morton (12 catches for 127 yards and one TD) and Tyler Basto (20 catches for 93 yards).

“They give you a lot of problems so you’ve got to be ready to handle all that,” said Singler.

The biggest issue for the Panthers this season has been in finding enough bodies to fill out the lineup. South Medford is up to 18 contributors out of action due to injury, including a host of starting positions, and yet the team still keeps finding a way to plug the holes and carry on.

“There’s never been a team riddled with injuries like we have had … honestly ever, I think, in the state of Oregon,” said Singler. “I’ve never seen anything like it. This is a first. I put this up against anybody in the state, I don’t think any team has ever been hit like this. It’s just unparalleled.”

But, in the words of the coach, the Panthers “just have to suck it up and play football.”

South Medford’s only losses this season have come against teams rated in the top six of the state in Grants Pass (third), Sheldon (fifth) and North Medford (sixth). The Panthers are averaging about 358 yards and 31 points per game on offense and allowing 344 yards and 27 points on defense.

Senior quarterback Craig Contreras has been instrumental thus far, completing 89 of 145 passes for 1,420 yards, 18 TDs and six interceptions. His offense has been given a jolt by freshmen Chase Cota (22 catches for 388 yards and eight TDs) and Kaleb Franklin (10 catches for 107 yards and two TDs) and continues to plow ahead thanks to key efforts on the line by Will Cooney, Jahan Kahusi and Jakob Ellis.

Junior Makai Manuwai has been a spark plug on both sides of the ball but is coming off a solid showing against North Medford that has him up to 202 yards rushing and seven TDs on 45 carries to go with seven catches for 100 yards.

“We didn’t score as many points as we needed to to beat North,” said Singler, “but we moved the ball. We had 150 yards rushing and 220 yards passing and they don’t give up that much, so I felt like we did some good things. I thought our guys really competed, and we need to do the same thing against Thurston.”

Hudson Thomas continues to be South’s leading ground gainer with 669 yards on 95 carries, and junior Cristian Ibarra could see his carries increase thanks to promising flashes that have led to him averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

“We’re just regrouping every week and going out and practicing the best we can with the players we have,” said Singler. “Our kids have kept their focus and a lot of these kids that haven’t played much are excited about playing, and that gets us excited about coaching them.”

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

South Medford senior Craig Contreras ranks third in the SWC with 1,420 yards passing entering Friday's game. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.