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Panthers focus in on repeat title

Yes, it was noteworthy. And, yes, it was impressive. But last week’s win over then-No. 1 Sheldon was but a necessary step for South Medford in its pursuit of a repeat Southwest Conference championship.

The final step comes Friday against South Eugene, and that’s not an opportunity that escapes the Panthers — who have risen to No. 2 in the Class 6A media poll — despite a disparity in success enjoyed by each team this season.

South Medford enters the regular-season finale with a 7-1 overall and 5-0 conference record, and South Eugene is 1-6 overall after losing all five SWC games thus far.

“We have to take care of business at home,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “We don’t want to share the league championship and those guys know that, and by beating South Eugene we’ll do that. That’s enough motivation in itself.”

That word certainly has carried itself through the program, with senior standout Jaylin Parnell echoing his coach’s sentiments about not losing track of what is ahead of them.

“I think we just need to come out and take care of business,” said Parnell. “We know what we have to do, we just need to come in focused and play them like they’re the best team in front of us right now.”

In other pivotal SWC finales Friday, North Medford plays at Willamette in a game that will determine the league’s fourth and final playoff spot and Sheldon travels to Grants Pass in a battle of teams tied for second in the SWC.

In 5A action, Eagle Point is host to Marist and Ashland plays at home against North Eugene, while Crater travels to Churchill.

At the 3A level, Cascade Christian will look to lock up a ninth straight league title when it plays host to Illinois Valley while St. Mary’s seeks a second straight bid to the state playoffs with a win at Lakeview.

On Saturday, Phoenix plays host to Newport in a Class 4A play-in contest.

One week ago, South Medford was in prime form earning its first SWC victory at Sheldon, 31-14, behind a yeoman’s effort from Parnell and company that resulted in 304 yards rushing overall and a 390-224 edge in total offense. Parnell ran for 243 of those yards with two touchdowns to go with a 40-yard interception return for a score.

“For me it was great,” said Parnell of his experience in Eugene. “The linemen did a great job of getting holes and I was just able to go through.”

Now with a win over South Eugene, South Medford can clinch its third title since the SWC was formed in 2006. Only Sheldon, with seven titles, and the Panthers have multiple SWC titles.

“(Repeating as SWC champions) means a lot because Sheldon has basically dominated this league for the past decade or so,” said Parnell. “Being able to say you’re conference champions is nice, but we’re just trying to take one step at a time to get to our real goal.”

The Panthers face a young team in South Eugene that, despite low numbers that forced a cancellation of its junior varsity and freshman seasons, has chugged along with consistent effort. Last week, the Axemen trailed Grants Pass only 17-0 at halftime before falling 31-0 for a sixth straight loss.

South Eugene has been outgained 304-173 in average yards this season and outscored 34-11 per game, but the Axemen are full of promise with sophomore quarterback Bryce Boettcher at the helm and playmaking seniors Elliot James and Oskar Mertz and junior Isaac Reyna at his disposal.

“He shows a lot of moxie,” Singler said of Boettcher. “He’s going through a learning curve but I see a kid they’re trying to coach up and get better. This is going to be his last ballgame of the year and I know all of South Eugene wants to put their best foot forward because they’ve got nothing to lose, obviously, and they probably think we’re looking over their shoulder.”

Friday also offers South Medford fans a chance to salute the team’s 24 seniors, who are guaranteed only one more home game in their careers after this week when the winner-take-all playoffs begin.

Parnell ranks second in the SWC with 851 yards and 15 TDs on 132 carries but isn’t likely to chase any titles as the Panthers look to limit his snap count and give rising junior Terrence Butler more opportunities. Butler has 33 carries for 339 yards and five scores.

Senior quarterback Robbie Patterson has completed 100 of 149 passes for 1,424 yards, 18 TDs and four interceptions, but the SWC’s two-time receiving leader — Chase Cota — isn’t likely to vie for a third straight top spot as the Panthers continue to spread the ball around effectively. Cota ranks fifth with 506 yards and eight TDs on 28 catches, one spot ahead of senior teammate Jaalen Owens (21 catches, 384 yards, six TDs).

Overall, the Panthers lead the SWC in total offense (373 yards per game), total defense (257 ypg) and turnover ratio (plus-14).

NORTH MEDFORD AT WILLAMETTE: There are no two ways about it, if North Medford wants to be absolutely sure of an automatic state playoff berth it has to win Friday at Willamette.

A loss creates a three-way tie between the Black Tornado, the Wolverines and Roseburg that would be broken by the highest power ranking, and North Medford opened the week with only a slight edge (24th) over Willamette (29th).

“We’re going to prepare as hard as we can and go into the game thinking that the only answer for us is to win,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. “For us this is the playoffs — one and done — and that’s the way we’re looking at it.”

North Medford (2-6, 2-3 SWC) got a big boost in its running game last week when junior Eli Spence carried 11 times for 121 yards, including a 75-yard scoring run, to complement the steady efforts of senior Isaac Manuel, who rushed 11 times for 62 yards against McNary and now has 475 yards overall.

Spence, who has also moved to defensive tackle to help North’s pass rush, ranks second in SWC receiving with 613 yards and five scores on 32 receptions.

Senior quarterback Josh Robbins continues to shoulder a key role as he aims to curtail North’s turnover issues. He has completed 97 of 196 passes for 1,493 yards with 16 TDs and 15 interceptions.

“Josh has got to be effective in the passing game,” said Mitchell. “We’ve got to be able to mix it up and we can’t win without him making good decisions.”

A struggling ground game has given rise to Willamette (2-6, 1-4) leaning heavily on senior quarterback Taylor Bridge-Eiler and his solid corps of steady receivers, led by 6-foot-3 senior Bryce Goggin.

Bridge-Eiler leads the SWC in passing with 2,049 yards on 141-for-262 passing with 17 TDs and six interceptions, while Goggin paces the SWC receivers with 639 yards and six TDs on 29 catches.

Tanner Branson (35 catches, 538 yards, six TDs), Jondre Smith (18 catches, 252 yards, three TDs) and Kalvyn Young (25 catches, 231 yards) are other top Willamette targets.

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