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Waiting in the wings

It's the dream of every football player to step on the high school scene and immediately take over as a playmaking force.

That's the dream, mind you, not the reality for most.

For players like South Medford's Ben Casebier, the path involves more of a slow and steady climb to the top — and the satisfaction may actually be greater.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior provided a breakout moment for the Panthers during last week's 24-9, season-opening win at West Salem, a feat he hopes to duplicate Friday when South Medford plays host to Westview at Spiegelberg Stadium.

In the opener, Casebier led all rushers with 120 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries. He also contributed an interception, one unassisted tackle and two assisted tackles from his strong safety spot on defense.

"He's just a kid that's been waiting in the wings for his opportunity and he's making the most of it this year," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "He doesn't want to leave anything on the field so you're going to get your best effort out of Ben Casebier every snap of every game. He's really what you call an ultimate team player and everybody respects that on the team, including the coaches."

Casebier missed almost his entire freshman season due to an ankle injury and returned his sophomore year as a part-time running back for the junior varsity and backup safety/linebacker on varsity. With then-senior Denzel Mobley and up-and-coming talent Christian Bowley available for backfield duty last year, Casebier again served primarily as a defensive reserve because that's where South Medford had a need.

Leading up to his senior year, Casebier worked especially hard in the offseason in hopes of claiming a more important role in his final go-round.

And all those extra efforts finally seem to have paid off.

"I just kind of had to work hard and eventually just hope I got my shot, and I think this year I finally am," said Casebier, who turns 18 on Sept. 17 and carries a 3.7 grade-point average. "It's a really rewarding feeling."

"I always was hoping my senior year I'd get my shot and I just think it's awesome that Bill's letting me run the ball and have so much responsibility," he added. "I just appreciate the opportunity to do it."

Such opportunity is earned and not simply given, according to Singler, and Casebier is just following the path so many of his kind have successfully navigated before him.

"That's the great thing, I think, about our program in some respects," said Singler, in his 15th year at South. "We've had guys like that surface their senior years where maybe they were unheralded their junior year or stuck on the second team varsity or special teams and then they crossover. Ben's a perfect example of that, a guy that's just hung in there. He understands the team concept and what it takes to put a team together and he's always been willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team."

The only sacrifice Casebier seems to be making this year is with his down time. Offense, defense, special teams "… he's busy making his mark in all phases this year.

"He just doesn't want to come off the field," said Singler. "He and (fellow senior) Adrian Garcia are a lot like Matt (Retzlaff), those guys just don't want to come off the field. They're in really good shape and committed to lay it all out there."

Casebier helped give the Panther offense a jump-start last week in an unconventional way when he stepped behind center to guide South's wildcat package against West Salem.

"That second quarter we went to the wildcat with him in the backfield and boy we just kinda took it down the field on them," said Singler. "We ended up spreading their defense a little bit and Ben kinda picked through some holes."

"He's very versatile," the coach added. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can pass protect and he can run the football. He understands the wildcat game we're dabbling with and he's been very adept at it. He picks his holes well and is a tough downhill runner."

Making his role easier, according to Casebier, is a stout, constant push provided by the Panthers' offensive line, as well as a talented corps of runners that includes the junior Bowley and senior Nick Phillips. All three runners averaged almost 6 yards per carry last week, with Bowley finishing with 65 yards rushing and one TD and Phillips adding 58 yards and one TD.

Bowley finished sixth among Southwest Conference ballcarriers last year with 447 yards and seven TDs on 49 carries. Casebier and Phillips provide a nice complement to his jitterbug style with their own blend of power and quick bursts through the line.

"There's definitely things Christian does I know I can't do and it's great to have that balance because there are some things I can do that he can't do as well," said Casebier. "I think having both is what keeps teams honest because you can't decided to just bring extra guys into the box or keep them spread out. Having Nick in there doing a good job, too, really helps because with three of us running the ball, we're always fresh."

That group also continues to push one another, which can only benefit the team as well.

"I'd say it's definitely really competitive for a starting spot because everybody wants to be the main guy," said Casebier, "but we all understand we're in this together and all of us can contribute. Everybody wants the ball but we're all focused on putting the team first."

Which, in the end, is the only thing that truly should matter, according to Casebier. When asked how he wanted the season to play out, there was no hesitation in his voice — as well as no outspoken individual goals.

"What I want for this season is to be part of a winning team that's one of the top teams in the state and have everyone around town excited about football and wanting to come out and watch us," he said.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Senior Ben Casebier and the South Medford Panthers host Westview on Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium. - Photo by Larry Stauth