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South embraces youth movement

Most of them haven’t cut their teeth enough to be true Panthers, but there’s something to the energetic buzz surrounding the South Medford football program these days.

What South Medford lacks in experience, it expects to make up for in youthful enthusiasm and potential for the 2015 campaign.

“This is one of the youngest teams we’ve ever had,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler, “but it’s an exciting team just because of the type of players we’ve got on the roster.”

“This team has a lot of spirit to them,” he added, “and this is a team that’s going to cause some teams conflict because of their aggressiveness and because of their speed and quickness and the fact that we have some playmakers. We’ll be competitive. How many games will we win, I can’t tell you, but we’re always looking to finish in the top half of our league and that’s still our goal.”

Despite suffering through another injury-ravaged season one year ago, South Medford placed fourth in the Southwest Conference and advanced to the state playoffs for the 12th time in 13 years. As a byproduct of the injuries, the Panthers gave a lot of young faces time in the spotlight toward the latter part of the season.

With one of the smallest senior classes this time around, and fewer juniors than normal, South Medford will pin a lot of its hopes on a sophomore class that is bursting with talent.

“We still think we’re a team that can compete with anybody, really, on any given day,” said Singler. “Sometimes when you have young teams, they don’t know any better and they just go out and play without any pressure and all of a sudden, boom, you look up and they’re ahead.”

With only three returning starters on offense and defense — and senior Makai Manuwai filling one role on each side — Singler knows patience will be needed for what surely will be a roller-coaster ride, often from one series to another.

“We just have to allow them to fail,” said Singler. “They’re not going to be perfect. One of the things we’re already talking to the kids about is to go on to the next play, just put the last play behind you and go on and just play. There’s going to be growing pains with this team and that’s OK.”

Manuwai’s presence will definitely have a stabilizing influence. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound versatile athlete has been an impactful fixture on the Panthers defense since he was a sophomore and helped shoulder the load on offense last season by rushing for nine touchdowns and 335 yards on 77 carries.

“We’re hoping that Makai stays healthy throughout the whole year and this is really his best year,” said Singler. “I think he came in this league as a sophomore and opened up some eyes and we want him to leave as a senior opening up those same eyes even more.”

Opening many eyes as freshmen last year were split end Chase Cota, H-back Kaleb Franklin and linebacker Jaylin Parnell. That trio will be surrounded by a host of fellow sophomores expected to rise to the challenge.

Cota played a key role from Day 1 and wound up leading the Panthers in receiving with 487 yards and nine TDs on 30 receptions. Franklin was bumped up from the freshman team midway through the season and, in five games, accounted for 101 yards rushing on 18 carries and 230 yards receiving on 18 receptions with a combined four TDs. Parnell joined the starting lineup and received valuable reps at linebacker down the stretch.

The most important fresh face — or faces — on the field this year will be at quarterback, where senior Cody Howard-Marthoski and sophomore Robbie Patterson vie for the lead role in their first varsity seasons. Howard-Marthoski has competed at the junior varsity level for the past two seasons, while Patterson was the freshman team QB last year.

Both quarterbacks offer different skills, and each has impressed Singler in their own way.

“We have good kids at quarterback, they’re just unproven guys,” said the 18th-year head coach. “I think we could go in and play both of these guys. I owe it to both of them because they’re just great kids and both have been everywhere we’ve asked them to be all summer.”

Singler said he expects to rotate the quarterbacks through the first two weeks, then make a final decision on the starting role prior to South’s conference opener on Sept. 18.

Senior Camren Rieg (6-1, 215) is the lone returning starter on an offensive line that may be undersized but is athletic and versatile, while senior linebacker Dillon Alfinito (5-11, 180) and junior safety Bobby Chaney (5-10, 165) return to help spearhead the defense.

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

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South Medford's Kaleb Franklin (20) joined the varsity at midseason as a freshman last year and contributed both on the ground and as a receiver. MT FILE PHOTO
Cota