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PREP NOTEBOOK: South boys in must-win mode

When South Medford’s boys soccer team wrapped up its 2018 campaign with a runner-up showing in the Southwest Conference, head coach Claudio Villa couldn’t help but carry lofty aspirations into the 2019 season.

The reigning SWC coach of the year was set to return three all-conference players and another who migrated from North Medford High, so the stage was set for a big run this season.

It just hasn’t quite played out that way for Villa and the Panthers, who enter the final week of the regular season on the edge of reaching the Class 6A state playoffs.

“We are in a weird position,” Villa said Monday. “We are placed third right now in conference and we can’t basically lose any matches, we have to win out just to secure a playoff spot.”

That’s a far cry from where he figured to be at this time one year ago.

“Going into this season, I had all of my offense coming back as seniors and I really felt like we had a good chance to win conference,” said the third-year head coach. “But unfortunately in soccer, probably just like any sport, defense matters a lot and I lost my four defenders from last year and my defensive midfielder.”

With defensive-minded players coming up from the junior varsity squad not quite ready to take over, Villa had to transition some offensive players to fill the void, leading to a season of adjustments for South Medford (6-4-2, 3-3-2 SWC).

The Panthers understandably started slow but have come on in recent weeks to find themselves holding the SWC’s final automatic spot to the playoffs, albeit with North Medford hot on their heels.

“In high school you only get a couple months and a couple months is not enough to coach and re-teach those guys about different positions,” said Villa. “That’s why it’s vital that when they’re little kids they need to be a total football player, where you can actually play any position when it’s needed.”

“That’s really hurt us this year,” he added, “because offensively we’ve played really well but defensively we’ve kept making silly mistakes that you make when you’re learning how to play a defensive role.”

The Panthers wrap up league play this week with a home date Tuesday against Roseburg (1-9-2, 1-6-1) and then as the second match in a marquee Black and Blue doubleheader Saturday night at Spiegelberg Stadium against North Medford (4-4-4, 2-3-3).

The North and South girls soccer teams will square off at 6 p.m. Saturday, with the boys playing at 8 p.m. in a twin bill that will see each squad celebrate Senior Night together.

“That will be really cool for both programs,” said Villa, who began coaching at South Medford as the JV head coach in 2004. “These kids grew up together with players from the North side and have been playing club ball with them since kinder-soccer, so I think at the end of the day they really enjoy the friendships that they’ve created over these years, regardless of what school they’re at.”

“For 80 minutes they’re rivals on the field,” he added, “but the minute that whistle blows and the game’s over, you can see them hanging out and hugging each other and supporting each other, so that’s nice to see.”

Getting the Medford teams all back in Spiegelberg Stadium will also be a plus. North and South typically play at their own high school fields as opposed to years ago when the Panthers called Spiegelberg home and, more recently, when the Tornado needed to use the stadium due to field issues at the school.

“I really enjoy playing there,” said Villa. “When I started coaching 15 years ago that’s where we used to play so I have these flashbacks of moments of success that we’ve had there in the past while coaching under Dave Kaufman.”

“It’s a really nice venue, having a big stadium under the lights,” he added. “I think the kids really get pumped up having that type of environment, and I can’t imagine not having a lot of fans coming over since we’re going to have a doubleheader.”

Beyond its own issues of development, South Medford’s precarious position for the boys soccer state playoffs also stems from a conference minus its typical state front-runner this season.

League-leading South Eugene carries the SWC’s highest mark in the 51-school state power rankings (20th), followed closely by Grants Pass (21st). South Medford (28th) and North Medford (36th) are in the next tier, but the SWC includes two of the lowest squads in the power rankings in Sheldon (43rd) and Roseburg (47th).

“I’ve never been able to figure out how those rankings work,” said Villa, “but it hasn’t been good for us.”

Twenty-one teams automatically advance to the state playoffs — the top three from each of the 6A’s seven leagues — and then the next highest 11 teams from the state power rankings.

North Medford’s boys team embarked on a road trip Monday to play South Eugene and, unless victorious, the Black Tornado could be left to play only a spoiler’s role this weekend against the Panthers. Entering Monday, North had four ties, one win and one loss in its last six matches.

“That could really be a key game on Saturday,” said Villa.

Interestingly, it was a 2-1 loss to North Medford on Oct. 8 that served as the lightning rod to South’s late-season surge. The Panthers have ties against South Eugene and Grants Pass and a win over Sheldon since falling to the Braden Byrd-led Tornado.

“After our loss to North Medford a few weeks ago,” said Villa, “I told the boys there’s no room for error, we’ve got to win out. I think I was able to get to the kids and really get the message out there. Sometimes when you’re working with high schoolers it’s hard to get them to buy in, but once you do, they’ll preach what you’re teaching and take it from there.”

“I think we have finally found the chemistry that we’ve needed,” he added. “I think the momentum is coming at the right time so I’m really excited about that.”

Instrumental to the Panthers’ success has been returning first-team all-SWC midfielder Kam Calhoun.

“Kam Calhoun is probably the best player in the conference, if not then one of the top three,” said Villa of the senior. “That kid is a complete all-around player that basically has been the engine and the brain of this team.”

Repositioned seniors Angus Stringer, Joel Izaguirre and Ruben Rodriguez (injured most of the year but back now) also appear to be rounding into form with their new defensive duties, along with junior defender Peyton Terry.

Returning midfielder Ian Gwaltney has also played a key role, along with senior Jordan Higuera, who transferred from North and has worked especially well with Calhoun.

Another key has come from the back of the Panthers’ formation, where junior goalkeeper Jude Pannell continues to anchor the defense.

“He is a natural talent and a natural athlete and he’s been able to keep us in big games since he came on as a freshman,” said Villa. “He’s really grown over the years and I can’t wait to see him get to that final stage where he is a complete goalie. I think he still needs a little work but what he’s doing is incredible for just playing basically high school soccer.”

SATURDAY’S GIRLS MATCH doesn’t appear to carry the same make-or-break setup as in the boys contest, but it could determine playoff position.

Although the Panthers rank third in the SWC and boast a 2-1 win over the Black Tornado this season, the 27th-ranked girls are two spots behind North Medford (No. 25) entering Tuesday’s matches.

North Medford (7-5, 4-4 SWC) has won 2-0 in its past two matches but faces a stiff test against one of the state’s best teams (South Eugene) at home Tuesday before seeing South Medford (4-6-2, 4-3-1) for a shot at who will finish third in the SWC or potentially overtake Sheldon for second.

Goalkeeper Jazzlynn Ross and playmakers Brooklyn Snow, Taylor Denn and Emily Parker have been integral figures for North.

The Panthers have won four matches with one tie and one loss in their last six outings entering Tuesday’s action at Roseburg. Forward Toni Coleman and defender Mikayla Titus have helped set the tone for a balanced South Medford squad.

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry