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PREP FOOTBALL: South, Grants Pass hunger for a win

Rivals meet in mirror-like clash; North tackles unbeaten Roseburg

In a football rivalry between South Medford and Grants Pass that dates back 35 years, Friday’s homecoming clash at Spiegelberg Stadium stands to be one of the most unusual and potentially most balanced showdowns.

And that’s saying something.

After all, when the teams met this past spring as part of the delayed 2020 season, the Panthers won 56-55 in a triple-overtime thriller.

“I know Grants Pass is kind of going through the course of hard knocks like we are,” said South Medford coach Bill Singler, “so I think you’re going to see a good battle because both teams want so badly to win the game. It’s always a barn-burner, with good competition and a well-spirited game, so we don’t expect anything less.”

What makes it unusual is the fact that the teams enter the 7 p.m. game with a combined 1-9 record — with GP’s 28-20 win over Shasta the lone victory in what has proven to be a steep learning curve for each young program.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever come into a game in these conditions where we are, in theory, at the bottom of the rung as far as the league goes,” said Grants Pass coach John Musser. “I know we haven’t really played many league games yet, and there’s still a lot to unfold with that, but it’s definitely unusual.”

“I really think South Medford has played the toughest schedule in the state of Oregon this year so far, though,” added Musser, “and I know we’re not far behind. That has something to do with it certainly.”

In another key Southwest Conference clash Friday, North Medford takes on No. 8 Roseburg. The 5A slate includes a rivalry showdown with No. 8 Crater at Eagle Point, and the anticipated return from a COVID hiatus for Ashland when it plays at Willamette.

In Friday’s 22nd Holy Bowl, St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian will meet at 7 p.m. at U.S. Cellular Community Park. The Challengers hold a 20-1 advantage in the series, with St. Mary’s lone win in 2003.

For South Medford (0-5, 0-1 SWC) and Grants Pass (1-4, 0-1), it’s difficult to imagine any meeting between the teams being as electric as this past spring. Each team scored a touchdown on their three overtime chances, with Jude Pannell’s eighth point-after kick serving as the deciding factor.

The Panthers twice held two-touchdown advantages over GP before the Cavemen repeatedly rallied in regulation.

“That was a wild game; I don’t know how we all got through it,” said Singler. “That was the wildest of all the games we’ve had against Grants Pass. It didn’t say a lot about both defenses going three overtimes like that, but for the fans and everybody, it was an exciting game, that’s for sure.”

The win was South’s 16th in the last 21 meetings of the series, and fourth in the last five against the Cavemen.

This year’s matchup involves mirror-like teams trying to find their stride, with offensive efforts that often seem to be one step forward and two steps back, and defenses susceptible to breakdowns that lead to big plays by their opponents.

South Medford is coming off one of its best showings in a 54-37 road loss to Sheldon that boosted its total offense to 286 yards per game. The Panthers, however, are allowing 433 yards per game.

Grants Pass is playing on the heels of one of its worst showings in which Roseburg rolled to a 56-14 win at Mel Ingram Stadium. The Cavemen average 233 yards on offense and allow 351 yards and 37 points per game, three points better than South.

The Panthers are scoring about a touchdown more per game than GP despite playing the likes of Lake Oswego, Lakeridge, Sheldon and McNary.

“I think both teams are just trying to find themselves really in a lot of ways,” said Singler. “Especially when you graduate seniors and you don’t have a lot of returning starters coming back, it’s a tough transition. When you couple that with a tough schedule, there aren’t any easy ways out.”

Musser agrees.

“High school football is always a roller-coaster, but this has been one of the most dramatic roller-coasters I’ve ever been a part of,” said Musser, in his 14th year at the helm. “Even within a 48-minute game, just the ups and downs and week-to-week dealing with all the stuff that we’ve dealt with with the smoke and COVID, and it’s the same thing that Bill’s been dealing with over there.”

In both situations, having resilient and hard-working players has made all the difference in maintaining hope for a fantastic finish to this fall.

“I think they understand the kind of team they are and the kind of schedule they’ve been playing,” said Singler of how pleased he’s been with the competitive nature of his squad, “and hopefully they just understand that there are still wins out there for them. We just have to keep buckling down and working hard because we have to go out and earn a victory, they’re certainly not going to be given to us.”

Junior quarterbacks faced with trial by fire lead both teams in South’s Deacon Edgar and GP’s Jace Blanchard, grandson of Cavemen legend Tom Blanchard.

Edgar took a big step last week against Sheldon, accounting for nearly 425 yards of total offense with two TD passes and two TD runs. Edgar has completed 62 of 122 passes for 950 yards with eight TDs and six interceptions while also running for 220 yards and three scores.

“He adds a dimension to our team with his legs and we have to keep building on that and utilizing that,” said Singler.

Blanchard hasn’t been able to generate much offense on the ground but he has completed seven more passes than Edgar in as many attempts for 761 yards. Blanchard has five TD passes compared to three interceptions.

Both teams have dynamic receiving options, with Andrew Walker (18 catches, 400 yards) and Colton Samis (15, 204) pacing South while GP has gotten consistent efforts from receivers Jackson Tunick (27, 416) and Jayce Jordan (22, 205) and tight end Josh Hart (15, 188).

The Panthers got a big boost from a better showing from their offensive line a week ago, despite the loss to injury of starters Diego Rios and Anthony DelPizzo. Senior Khedive Robinson, who hadn’t played on the OL, and sophomore Bowen Johnson did well in their place to complement efforts by Brogan Hancock, Jackson Robertson and Li Moala.

“Khedive Robinson stepped in and did a great job,” said Singler. “I was really happy for him with how he performed.”

NORTH MEDFORD AT ROSEBURG: Unbeaten Roseburg has thrived with a senior-heavy lineup and the insertion of Colton Marsters at quarterback.

Marsters is the SWC’s second-leading rusher at nearly 14 yards per carry with 10 TDs on 49 carries and has capitalized on big plays to throw for another 511 yards and five scores on only 44 completions.

Off to their first 5-0 start since 2013, the Indians also have gotten a jolt from sophomore running back Cayden Eckel (582 yards, nine TDs) and senior receivers Landyn Dupper (12 catches, 203 yards) and Logan Klopfenstein (14 catches, 158 yards).

North Medford’s calling card in recent weeks has been an ability to battle to the final whistle, securing wins over Sherwood, Liberty and Bend with resilient efforts over the past few weeks.

Senior quarterback Mason Warren, flush with receiving options at his disposal, has settled in nicely in his first year at the helm and completed 49 of 82 passes for 724 yards, eight TDs and two interceptions.

Senior Bryce Dyer (17 catches, 249 yards) and sophomore AJ Pugliano (16 catches, 326 yards) have been mainstays for Warren, while sophomore Connor Cesaro made a big splash in his varsity debut last week and will look to build upon that as a complementary option.

On the ground, junior Ty Pugliano has shown a knack for picking up the hard yards when needed while also gaining yards in bunches, averaging 5.4 yards per carry to go with four scores. Pugliano scored the winning TD one week ago inside the final minute.

Defensively, Roseburg leads the SWC at 202 yards and eight points allowed per game, while the Black Tornado (3-1) is averaging 291 yards of total offense and 373 of total defense.

Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune South Medford quarterback Deacon Edgar, seen here in a file photo against Lakeridge earlier this season, and the Panthers face rival Grants Pass on Friday night.