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From the archives: South Medford boys soccer makes history

For much of the 1990s, the South Medford High boys soccer team saw its season end the same kind of way.

The Panthers were the gold standard in the Southern Oregon Conference for much of the decade. It took their innovative head coach, Wally Hicks, less than a decade to compile more than 100 wins. But, when it came to the postseason, those same incredibly accomplished Panthers couldn’t replicate their regular-season success and were unable to capture the state title they so desired.

Until 1997.

Years of almosts and playoff demons were finally put to bed for the Panthers in the fall of 1997. It was then, under the direction of its “unlikely guru” of a coach, that South Medford claimed its first-ever state title with a 5-0 win over South Eugene in Wilsonville, the first time a soccer team from the Rogue Valley had ever won a state championship.

The Panthers’ dominant win ended what was a dominant season.

And it just so happened that South Medford’s lone loss of 1997 was to South Eugene.

The championship was the cherry on top of a season in which the Panthers finally broke through in the postseason. They had been eliminated in the quarterfinals five times during Hicks’ tenure.

But it was this senior-laden squad that accomplished what it had clearly been gunning for ever since the players were freshmen.

Led by star forward and state player of the year Bryn Ritchie, the Southern Oregon Conference champion Panthers finished 15-1-1. Ritchie, one of the best players to ever come out of the Rogue Valley, finished his senior season with 24 goals and 18 assists.

“The reason I’m out there on the field is to help create opportunities for other players,” Ritchie said during the Panthers’ playoff run. “That’s my job is to create. We have enough good players that a lot of people can score.”

The Panthers’ experienced group went well past Ritchie.

South Medford had another all-state selection on its roster in goalkeeper Chad Warren, who was the backbone of a Panthers defense that was one of the best in the state.

Ritchie and Warren, both four-year starters, were two of South Medford’s 13 seniors. Eleven of those seniors started, and four of them had done so since their sophomore season.

They not only grew up together in Medford and youth soccer leagues, but they grew up together on the field once they reached high school. Few teams could rival the experience the Panthers had, and it was a title-or-else mindset that drove them.

Fittingly, their final time playing together ended in history being made.

“It’s what we have been dreaming of for the last few years,” senior forward Tyler Hoffbuhr said after the state title-clinching win. “We’ve had a couple of years of frustration. Last year was supposed to be the good team. We were told that we were the best in the state and didn’t get it done. But this year we pulled it out.”

A dominant regular season

Even though it was extremely early in the season, it was that South Eugene loss that proved to be the start of something special for South Medford.

Afterward, Hicks, the Panthers’ coach from 1990 to 1997, changed both his tactics and his formation. The change meant that two of South Medford’s best players, Ritchie and Hoffbuhr, moved up from midfield positions to the attacking third of the field, and it paid off.

From the Sept. 6, 1997, loss to South Eugene onward, South Medford didn’t lose again.

“It was a good thing for us to play those guys (South Eugene) early on and try to figure out what we needed to change to make us better,” Hicks said. “We thought our original lineup would work, but it didn’t. We changed our formation and our personnel.”

The tactical shift, however, didn’t impact the Panthers’ ability to defend.

In the 17 games it played in the 1997 season, South Medford recorded 13 shutouts. The Panthers were so good defensively that sometimes they left their all-state keeper, Warren, without much to do over the course of a game.

The end result was another unblemished run through the SOC and plenty of momentum as the Class 4A playoffs got underway.

The road to state

Entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, South Medford knew its side of the bracket had to come through Medford to make it to Wilsonville for the state final.

And just as they did in the regular season, the Panthers only continued to roll.

South Medford beat Thurston 5-0 in the quarterfinals. The Panthers then beat Mountain View 3-0 in the semifinals, advancing to the championship for the first time.

The only two postseason goals the Panthers allowed came in a 3-2, second-round win in overtime over McKay. It was that defensive showing that, according to defender Seth Parks, snapped South Medford’s backline back into shape.

“After the McKay game, we pretty much made a vow not to let anyone score against us,” Parks said after the title game. “And if they did score, it was going to be a well-earned goal.”

It proved to be the last time South Medford allowed a goal.

As the Mail Tribune’s game story said after the win over Mountain View: “The South Medford Panthers are postseason underachievers no more.”

The monkey was finally off the Panthers’ back.

And they were about to play for their first-ever state title because of it.

The championship game

Maybe it was destiny that the Panthers would end up meeting South Eugene once again in order to capture their first-ever state title.

It certainly made sense with the two of them being two of the top three seeds in the 4A field.

But it was the second seed that played like the undeniable top team in the championship.

Forward Tyler Hoffbuhr scored the game’s first goal off a Ritchie assist all of a minute before the halftime whistle sounded. Hoffbuhr doubled the South Medford lead with 28 minutes to go.

Then, the flood gates opened as South Eugene pushed to try and make things interesting again.

Ritchie made it 3-0 four minutes after Hoffbuhr’s second goal.

“It’s what we have been dreaming of for the last few years,” Hoffbuhr said. “We’ve had a couple of years of frustration. Last year was supposed to be the good team. We were told that we were the best in the state and didn’t get it done. But this year we pulled it out.”

Warren in goal as well as the man in front of him, sweeper Daniel Lupes, were standouts defensively in the most important shutout of the season. Warren said afterward that he was the busiest he had been all year.

Regardless, the Panthers were able to get the ultimate prize.

“The goal for eight years has been to win the state championship,” Hicks said. “It’s been a long time coming but here we are.”

Hicks’ last hurrah

The 1997 season was Hicks’ final season as South Medford’s head coach.

In his eight years, the Panthers won 107 of 129 games. They also won six SOC titles, going unbeaten each one of those championship seasons. Hicks was the SOC coach of the year in 1995.

“That’s a nice way to go out,” said Hicks, who added that the upcoming graduation of so many players and the juggling of coaching with his day job as a lumber sales manager played a role in his decision. “You kind of feel like a rat doing it but how do you get out of it? If I’d stayed one more year and didn’t do it again, I’d feel like I had to stay until we did do it again.”

When announcing his decision to step down, Hicks — who passed away in 2012 at age 70 — maintained that he would be a one-program man and wouldn’t coach anywhere other than at South Medford. That remained true.

The Panthers did win another state title, in 2003 under Dave Potter.

But it was the squad six years earlier that paved the way.

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

South Medford forward Bryn Ritchie (7) was named the state player of the year after leading the Panthers to the Class 4A title in the 1997 season. (Mail Tribune file photo)
South Medford forward Bryn Ritchie (7) was named the state player of the year after leading the Panthers to the Class 4A title in the 1997 season. (Mail Tribune file photo)