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Finally, soccer is afoot for prep players

Dave Potter finds himself waking up in the wee hours of the morning, inspired by the opportunity he has to coach the South Medford girls soccer program.

That inspiration has taken on new meaning for Potter, his Panthers and just about every other girls soccer team in the Rogue Valley this year given limitations put on athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a perfect world, this soccer season would long have been in the rearview mirror and strides would be being taken right now for the 2021 fall campaign.

At this point, however, all are simply happy to have this six-week opportunity instead of being forced to skip a season that should have started last September but now kicks off as soon as Tuesday for the likes of South Medford, Ashland, Crater and Eagle Point.

“On behalf of the girls, thank goodness,” Potter said of a return to competition, “because they have been so cheated unfortunately and they have been so short-changed, it breaks my heart.”

“I am emotionally appreciating this on a daily basis,” he added. “This is a very special reward here (at South Medford).”

Potter became the Panthers’ fourth head coach in four years this past June after South Medford principal Donnie Frazier lured him out of retirement when an initial plan to hire John Case, who had visa issues due to the pandemic and couldn’t move to the area from England.

Potter had previously stepped away from guiding the St. Mary’s girls program in 2018 to focus on time with grandchildren and continued development of the Rogue Valley Timbers club program, but the itch to get back into coaching could not be denied and, thankfully, earned the approval of his wife of 47 years, Karen.

Potter compiled an 82-16 record in his first stint as the South girls coach (1992-97), then switched to the boys side and guided the Panthers to the 2003 state championship. In an 11-season run at St. Mary’s (2007-18), his teams won 153 games and finished as state runner-up in 2010 to go with seven state semifinal appearances.

With a very deep talent pool to choose from, Potter’s Panthers have a great shot at erasing any bad feelings from last year, when South Medford finished 5-7-3 and posted its first losing record since 2011.

“I like what I see and I love who I’m working with,” said Potter. “These girls have made a believer out of me to where I’m up in the middle of the night excited about the opportunity. If these young ladies are half as good of soccer players as they are as people, we’re going to shine and shine brightly. They are incredible. They’ve knocked my socks off, this group of young ladies.”

South Medford returns a pair of all-Southwest Conference honorees in senior Rainie Dabbs (second team) and junior Drew Hampson (honorable mention).

Dabbs is part of a special group of forwards that includes seniors Riley Fox and Mariah Delgado-Hachee.

“You’re privileged as a soccer coach to have one player who you can label as lightning in a bottle,” said Potter, “I have four of them, and three of them are forwards. They never stop moving, they have a lot of soccer experience and they know which way the goal is. They just don’t quit and they do not die, it’s amazing. I have more fun watching them because they’ll close space on defenders so fast, it’s a shock.”

The other part of that foursome, senior Morgan Burke, helps anchor the defense and likely will move into more of a central defender role to take advantage of her steadfast skills.

Other key returners for the Panthers include senior goalkeeper Jaeda Boutwell, juniors Bella Bottero, Carmen Hutchins, Molly Hungerford, Lily Kalina and Makayla Pederson.

Sophomores Leki Maukonen, Lexie Clark, Caris Follett, Amelia Fox and Eve Lynx (who will share time in goal) also add depth to a South squad that also boasts several varsity-caliber freshmen.

Another key addition comes in the form of junior Isabelle Cruz, who transferred from Grants Pass and has made an immediate impact with her high-level experience.

“My biggest problem is I’m going to have to pick a varsity of about 18 of this group,” Potter said of a roster brimming with talent. “It’s going to be very difficult to do. I’m very lucky, it’s exciting.”

At the behest of the Oregon School Activities Association, league affiliations have been largely set aside this spring so schools can compete at a more regional level and limit potential spread of the coronavirus.

With that, the local Class 6A and 5A schools have bandied together this spring to fill a schedule that runs through April 11 and features about nine games each and includes contests against Grants Pass and Roseburg.

At play for all, however, is the precarious nature of COVID-19 and maintaining team healthy test results throughout the season.

“Hopefully everybody in the conference can get through without having a COVID case or getting quarantined,” said Crater girls coach Bryton Kiger, “because honestly a quarantine will take away your season. You’re down 14 days and the season is a month.”

North Medford

Led by Taylor Denn, Emily Parker, Sophie Elam and Dakota Alewine, North Medford boasts considerable senior leadership and a team that will be a force to be reckoned with this spring.

The vast majority of North Medford’s squad returns from a year ago, when the Black Tornado went 7-7-1. With most players in their third season in Patrick Mangan’s program, the coach expects big things this season.

“This core group has been very consistent for me the past couple years and we’ve just gotten better and better every year,” said Mangan. “Seeing that core move through and having them take over and really command this team, I think that’s going to be the most exciting part.”

Denn was a first-team all-Southwest Conference performer a year ago after leading the team with nine goals as a midfielder, while Parker was a second-team pick after doling out the most assists from her striker/outside midfield position. A four-year starter, Denn has signed to play next year at Abilene Christian.

Alewine (center back) and junior Kira Pyka (midfield) were also second-team all-conference players last year, and Elam’s versatility helps allow North to have confidence in all levels of the field.

Junior Brisa Ledesma returns to help anchor the defense at center back, and the Black Tornado has the luxury of a returning goalkeeper in Katelynn Balsiger.

A year ago as a freshman, Balsiger earned the starting nod in goal before being sidelined by injury and watched as then-senior Jazzlynn Ross stepped up to be named SWC goalie of the year.

“Katelynn’s a phenomenal goalkeeper,” said Mangan. “She has tons of leadership and knows the position extremely well. She’s confident and takes control of the back line and is extremely agile. She’s gotten some fun saves.”

North Medford wasn’t able to be at full strength for most of its scrimmages leading up to the season but that also allowed for some younger players to step up and gain valuable experience.

“We have some young ones coming up that I’m excited about so I think we’ll be a good blend this year,” said Mangan.

Ashland

One of head coach Eric Wolff’s biggest tasks over the last two seasons has been building a young roster back up after the Grizzlies came within a game of a Midwestern League title in 2017.

Ashland has had nearly as many freshmen as seniors on its roster in 2018 and 2019, and the hope is that all of the experience the young players have gotten over the last two years continues to result in progress this spring.

“We have a great core when everybody is healthy and available, so I’ll be excited to get started with the season,” said Wolff, whose team finished 7-6-2 overall in 2019. “I’m excited to see this group playing together and we have to make sure everybody stays healthy and gets fit and playing together well.”

But, as can happen these days, the Grizzlies are getting going again in the latter stages of this week after a two-week pause due to a positive COVID-19 case within the program.

“The season is coming up real quick, and if you can’t practice right before the season starts you’re just running the risk of more injuries because people aren’t in shape, so I’m a little worried about that,” Wolff said.

While the Grizzlies graduated a trio of all-conference players from a season ago, they return all-MWL pick Joelle Annen, who was one of only two freshmen to be included as a first- or second-team honoree in 2019. Wolff describes Annen as “the centerpiece of our defense” after she settled into a key role as a central defender.

Fellow sophomore Iniana Hammond will be looked upon to be the Grizzlies’ engine in midfield. Hammond is the younger sister of former Grizzlies standout Mya Elder-Hammond, who currently plays at Eastern Washington. The younger Hammond is somebody Wolff describes as “just as good as her sister.”

Brianna Gibbs, who didn’t play her freshman season as she focused on club soccer, is another talented sophomore that Wolff is looking toward to make her mark this spring as she helps lead the Grizzlies’ line in attack.

“She’s playing with a level of confidence that you rarely see in a player,” Wolff said of Gibbs. “I’m very excited about my three sophomores plus my junior class.”

Crater

It all starts in the back for Crater, where the Comets return a pair of seasoned center backs in juniors Mia Tewes and Kayleigh Gugliotta and have depth at goalkeeper with returning senior Teya Amidei and junior newcomer Fallon Campbell, a transfer from Chula Vista, California.

Third-year Crater coach Bryton Kiger dubs Tewes and Gugliotta “the core” of a defense that should get a lift by a healthy competition for time in goal between Amidei and Campbell.

“What’s really fun is we’re operating in a cauldron right now so they’re competing for time and they’re pushing each other to be better,” said Kiger of the net-minders. “We’re looking at our competition and we’re going to use who’s going to be better on that day in relation to our competition.”

Senior Allison Waters has received college interest for her physicality as well as her versatility.

“Allison can really play anywhere, that’s what makes her so valuable,” said Kiger. “She’s a very versatile player. Normally she plays as a forward but we actually see her at midfield this year.”

Sophomore Holly Trautman is an emerging striker, while freshmen Maddy Ritchey and Kelsey Sakraida have already proven to be consistent factors beyond their years.

The Comets posted a 5-5-4 record last season, with goal-scoring providing an obvious differential. Crater didn’t lose a game in which it scored a goal, but was shutout in all five defeats.

Eagle Point

Phil Ortega returns to a familiar area after having coached the Eagle Point boys soccer program from 2008-12 and is looking to stir up a rebranding of a girls program that has dealt with more than its fair share of struggles.

The Eagles last won a game on the pitch Sept. 7, 2017 (8-1 over Dallas) and didn’t score a single goal in 13 games last season. Taking out a forfeited win over Corvallis in the season opener of 2018 and a 0-0 tie a week after beating Dallas in 2017, it’s been 35 contests since EP last enjoyed walking off the field in victory.

Ortega hopes a promising preseason stint has wiped away those memories, along with the return of three key players and the introduction of a few others that lend hope.

Junior captain Kylie Balero holds down the defensive midfield as a returner, while sophomores Jade Lierman and Raegan Hussey bring steady drive as outside wingers.

New to the fold is junior Makenna Maldonado, who has a track background and Ortega hopes will help open up the field for the Eagles.

Eagle Point will also get the advantage of Ortega’s daughters (senior Monique and freshman Alyssa) in the midfield.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford’s coach Dave Potter talks to the team before practice at South Medford High School in the rain Thursday evening.