Grants Pass rallies to beat weary South Medford
It was three weeks ago that South Medford made the 30-minute trip up I-5 and opened Southwest Conference play with a win on Grants Pass’ home field.
On Saturday, the Cavemen returned the favor.
After falling behind midway through the first half, Grants Pass rallied to flip the score in its favor as Elijah Leach assisted on a tying goal then scored the game-winner to help the Cavemen claim a 2-1 win over South Medford.
“You know, I think these guys dug down deep,” Grants Pass head coach Travis Boersma said. “They really wanted this game in a big way. South got us the first one, we got them the second one. We brought tremendous effort as a team into the second half. That was a big deal because when you play as a team, it’s a much better game.”
Grants Pass (5-3-1, 4-2 SWC) and South Medford (6-4, 3-3) entered the day tied for second place in the league standings behind first-place South Eugene, with the Panthers’ Sept. 18 win giving them the edge when it came to a tiebreaker.
With South Eugene’s win over Roseburg on Saturday, Grants Pass has second place all to itself while South Medford finds itself a game behind in third.
The Panthers, who had won three of their last four outings coming into Saturday’s game, again played with a short bench due to a multitude of absences.
“For us, it was tired legs,” said South head coach Claudio Villa, whose team beat Nelson High 7-0 less than 24 hours earlier. “We only had three subs because of injuries, and due to COVID we had three starters out. It was definitely tired legs. You have a short roster, your starters get tired and you don’t have a big bench. It’s kind of hard to keep up with that speed — especially at this level — so that was a big one.”
Before the fatigue set in, South was dangerous going forward, creating the bulk of its scoring opportunities before halftime. Seven of the Panthers’ 13 shots came during the opening 40 minutes, with Cavemen goalkeeper Jacob Moss staying busy.
South’s first chance came in the eighth minute when sophomore forward Cash Cota nearly gave the Panthers the lead with a bending shot that went just wide at the far post.
Less than three minutes later, the Panthers made it 1-0. Sophomore forward Felix Valenzuela’s shot from the top of the 18-yard box was initially saved by Moss, but junior midfielder Alex Rodriguez was in the right place at the right time and tapped home the rebound.
“Again, just going back to having fresh legs in the first half,” Villa said. “You have your starters create some danger, but then they get fatigued and you’re working at half the speed.”
Grants Pass, however, was able to weather the first-half storm and limit South to just the one goal despite the bevy of scoring chances. Four of Moss’ five saves in the game came before halftime, including a pair of diving stops that kept the South lead at 1-0.
The Cavemen tied the game with less than a minute to go in the first half, as Leach delivered a corner that found senior Parker Pastrell, who slipped it past Panthers keeper Silvano Pineda.
Despite pulling even, Grants Pass didn’t rest on its laurels.
“Coach told us basically that we could have done better, could have come off better and little mistakes lead to goals,” Leach said. “He told us the second half was a whole separate game to try and win.”
That’s what they ended up doing.
In the 59th minute, the Cavemen completed the comeback. Working the ball from the right wing to the left, freshman midfielder Tristen Gembala dished it to Leach, who found some open space on the left. Leach didn’t think twice about where the ball was going, hammering in a shot to make it 2-1.
“I saw everybody drifting over because the ball was on the right side,” Leach said. “The striker got the ball so I went in and came back out when I saw the opening. I just called for the ball and one-touched it in.”
Two minutes earlier, Rodriguez had a chance to give South the lead on a quick counterattack, but Grants Pass’ Evan Miranda made a sliding block on a shot that was destined to go on frame.
“I think it was mindset,” Boersma said. “More than anything it was mindset. These guys came together, they didn’t lose their composure, they kept their cool and we started to possess the ball and control the game. That’s what it’s all about.”
Boersma also pointed to a personnel change leading to the charge from his team in the second half.
“We made an adjustment in the last part of the second half and that was with Mario Torres — we had him at the No. 6 (position) as a holding mid,” Boersma said. “That made a big difference because we’ve got some great leaders back there with Cade Brandes, Parker Pastrell and Mario as our central core defense. That was the difference in the game. Mario really stepped up and had a hell of a game.”
South Medford finished with a 13-11 advantage in shots.
Pineda recorded five saves before he came off injured late in the second half after a collision with a Grants Pass player.
“We have a roster of 16 players, and now we’re down to 13 or 14,” Villa said. “We’re playing kids up from JV here and there. We’re rebuilding still, but I think we have a good group and it’s a long season. This was just one game.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.