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The pain will linger for those in the South Medford football program. There’s just no way around it when you come so close to fulfilling a lifelong dream.

But, hopefully, it won’t take too long before the Panthers realize all they were able to accomplish, and that Saturday’s scoreboard plays only a small role in that picture.

Spurred by a senior class that was targeted to accomplish big things years ago, South Medford wrapped up its most successful football season in school history this past weekend by finishing as the Class 6A state runner-up to Clackamas, which used a 37-yard field goal in the waning seconds to rally for a 31-30 triumph.

The game will go down as one of the most thrilling in large-school history — it had been 32 years since there was such a close contest — and left the Panthers with nothing to hang their heads over in a well-fought battle.

“I kind of look at this way,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler on Monday, “sometimes you win in life when you lose. I think this is a prime example of it. On the scoreboard we lost the game, but the journey, the process and the culture we established along the way, I look at that as more valuable than just one game. These kids will have that for a lifetime.”

No team in South Medford history won as many games as this year’s Panthers, who finished 12-2. Along the way, they earned a second straight Southwest Conference championship and scored the program’s first wins at the quarterfinal and semifinal levels.

They set team records for most points in a season (578) and most points in a game (63-0 over Gresham) — which tied the 2011 playoff total against Centennial but finished as the largest margin of victory in school playoff history.

Ten other individual records were set, all by seniors to cap a handful of remarkable careers.

“Every season presents new challenges and you have a different core group of kids to work with,” said Singler, “but these guys you could see it when they entered school as freshmen, they had something special about them.”

“I think this year they did a terrific job of coming together and really working hard for a common goal. You could see the teamwork really come out in everything they did, not just on the field but off the field, and that’s why you saw them reach the heights they did this year.”

They took Panther fans on a much-appreciated ride that resulted in a large outpouring of followers along the way, including several hundred in attendance for Saturday’s title game despite a rainy, cold setting more than 200 miles from home.

“It really shows the support of our valley and our community, all the guys that made the trip up,” said senior quarterback Robbie Patterson. “We love them so much, we just wish we could’ve gotten something more for them. I love them and I love being a Panther.”

Part of that isolation as one of the few 6A teams south of Salem, however, leads to the most disappointing part of this season. South Medford is loaded with talent that should be taking the next step in their playing journey with ease, and yet only senior standout Chase Cota is on any major college radar.

From Jaylin Parnell to Patterson to Jaalen Owens and so many others, there are big-time players just waiting for calls.

“We live in what I call a recruiting dead zone,” said Singler. “We’re in a part of the country or part of the West Coast that’s hard to get to. When you’re recruiting, you have to get a lot of bang for your buck because it’s an expensive venture to get coaches out recruiting, whether by plane or car or whatever. When you want to get a lot of bang for your buck, you’re going to go to a metropolitan area like Seattle or Portland or San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

Cota is blessed with the measurables college programs are looking for at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds. Combined with a 20-yard agility shuttle of 4.13 seconds and a vertical jump of 36½ inches, Cota has all the qualities to go with an NFL pedigree as the oldest son of former pro Chad Cota. The senior receiver has crisscrossed the country going to camps in an effort to get on the radar of several prominent Division I programs.

In about two weeks, Cota will get to choose his college and set up the next step in his life after graduating early. He owns the Panthers’ single-game receiving record after a 282-yard, 10-catch effort in 2015, and his four TD receptions against North Medford this year tied the school single-game record set by Ryan Heil in 2001 against Redmond and equaled by Kaleb Franklin in 2015 against Roseburg.

Overall, Cota amassed 2,696 yards and 38 touchdowns on 165 receptions in his four-year varsity run. Only Mitch Singler finished with more career receiving yards (2,785), but Cota’s TD totals surpassed the current Oregon State assistant coach’s tally of 31 and his overall receptions put him ahead of previous leaders Ryan Benson (149) and E.J. Singler (148).

“We’re lucky enough that we have one kid in Chase Cota that’s on the recruiting radar at a very high level so we’ve had some traffic in here more than other years,” said Bill Singler. "But that hasn’t really been to look at others, they’re here to see Chase and he’s deserved that.”

But that’s not saying his teammates haven’t deserved their own share of college opportunities, and Cota is the first to preach on that topic.

“We’ll have more kids off this team go play college football this year than any we’ve ever had,” said Singler, “they just don’t know where that is yet.”

“A lot of our kids are still going through the process,” he added, “but hopefully the further we went into the playoffs, more eyes were on them and more coaches watched them on film and maybe something will come of it.”

Parnell (6-0, 200) pulled off a rare repeat this year as SWC player of the year on offense and defense, and his name is all over the school record books. Still, the two-way standout carries only one offer from Southern Oregon University.

With 1,442 rushing yards this year and 24 rushing TDs, Parnell topped the previous single-season records owned by Matt Cromwell, who had 1,422 yards and 21 rushing TDs in 1992. (It should be noted there are some statistical gaps in the South program from 1993-2001.)

Parnell’s 32 carries against Sheldon tied the single-game record set by Andres Reed in 2001 against Grants Pass, and his four rushing TDs against GP this year tied Derrick Vaughn’s total against Mazama in 1994. Parnell’s five combined scores against the Cavemen this year were a school record.

For his career, Parnell boasts 2,974 yards rushing and 37 TDs on 413 carries to go with 985 yards and 13 scores on 82 receptions. All that done while also finishing as one of South Medford’s leading tacklers in each of the past two seasons and rarely coming off the field.

So what’s missing? Well, Parnell doesn’t have an off-the-charts time in the 40-yard dash — although he’s rarely been caught in the open field to go with his ability to punish would-be tacklers — and he hasn’t spent much time parading himself in front of scouts.

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar with Parnell who would say their team would be better off without him. That feeling seems like it would only increase if Parnell’s duties were only on one side of the ball so he could be fresh for each series, as it would in college as a running back or potential outside linebacker/strong safety.

“Some of our kids don’t meet the measurables that a lot of schools want or judge talent by,” said Singler, “but there’s a place for the Jaylin Parnells and Robbie Pattersons in the football world. It’s just not materializing at this point as fast as they’d like, but it’s going to materialize at some point. It has to because these kids have too much talent for it not to.”

“You can’t measure heart,” added the coach, “and Jaylin certainly has as big a heart muscle as any football player we have in our state.”

The 5-11, 195-pound Patterson already owned a share of the single-game school record for TD passes, with six against Roseburg in 2015, set by Boomer Marshall in 2002 against Canby.

This year Patterson surpassed his own school record for completion percentage, finishing at 68.9 percent to top last year’s mark of 66.2 percent. He wound up completing 173 of 251 passes for 2,415 yards, 30 TDs and four interceptions to raise his career totals to 6,546 yards on 470-for-735 passing with 79 TDs and 20 interceptions.

SOU, College of Idaho and Friends University have stepped up to offer Patterson. More contacts should be rolling in given his stellar postseason run.

Dynamic playmakers like Owens and Franklin, who had his season cut short with a torn ACL in third game, also beg for more attention.

The 5-10, 170-pound Franklin may need some time before paying big dividends again but his career totals of 1,530 yards receiving and 16 TDs on 130 catches are enough to show his potential.

Owens may possess the biggest upside but doesn't have any offers despite the 6-1, 165-pounder showcasing dynamic skills as a receiver and cornerback to go with his kicking ability. As one of the top athletes in the program, Owens had 36 catches for 669 yards and 10 scores to go with five interceptions. He also converted two field goals and 78 extra-points.

Owens, who also excels at basketball and baseball, had five catches for 102 yards and two TDs and a 31-yard field goal in the first half of the state title game before having to exit with a back injury.

And that’s just the Panthers who find themselves on highlight packages.

Linemen Brandon Ditty, Michael Cormier and Martin Laupola (who likely would’ve been a key linebacker had injury not kept him to offense-only duties) and fullback/linebacker Trent Snyder, linebacker Evan Dallas and cornerback Josiah Johnson (who had a team-best six interceptions and tied a school record with three interceptions against West Salem) are among others who could play at the next level.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that all the kids get an opportunity to play in college,” said Singler. “But it’s tough to make any college team, no matter what level it’s at.”

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

South Medford quarterback Robbie Patterson (2) scrambles for a first down against Clackamas in the 6A state championship game Saturday. [ANDY ATKINSON/MAIL TRIBUNE]
South Medford's Jaylin Parnell charges down the sideline for a touchdown in the 6A state championship game Saturday. [ANDY ATKINSON/MAIL TRIBUNE]