South Medford High football coach Bill Singler cringed a little when he learned the Panthers were ranked as the state's No. 1 Class 6A team in an online preseason poll.
But the late-summer accolade revealed what a lot of folks around the state have come to know: the Panthers are loaded with talent.
"We've got high expectations," says Singler, entering his 11th season as the Panthers' head coach. "We've got a lot of interest going, and this group is more dedicated than any I've had at South Medford. We had 55 to 60 kids working out all summer, and that didn't include the freshmen.
"Our kids know this could be a special time, and they've prepared themselves for the moment."
The Panthers return six starters on offense and seven on defense from a year ago when they finished 8-3 overall, snagged second place in the Southwest Conference with a 4-1 record and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
The team is stacked with outstanding players throughout, but it's the Panthers' skill position players that offensive coordinators would kill for.
Wide receivers Mitch and E.J. Singler and tailback Patrick Thibeault return as first-team all-conference players. E.J. Singler played tight end last season, but the emergence of Brett Wallan, a second-team all-conference performer on defense in 2007, persuaded coach Singler to position his son (Mitch) and nephew (E.J.) on the outside with Wallan at tight end.
"More than anything, we wanted to get our best athletes on the field at the same time," coach Singler says. "Wallan's a physical kid and E.J., like Mitch, has the speed to get down field. That's a nice group of receivers."
Mitch Singler, a 6-foot-3, 188-pound senior who's getting recruited by Oregon State, Stanford and Washington, led the state in receiving yards last season with 1,288 on 65 catches. He also scored 15 touchdowns. The 6-6, 205-pound E.J. Singler, a top recruit in both football and basketball, had 70 catches for 1,149 yards and 10 scores.
Thibeault, meanwhile, ran for 887 yards and 12 touchdowns and looks primed for bigger numbers in 2008, thanks to an experienced offensive line anchored by left guard Cody Smith and left tackle Rodolfo Contreras.
"It's amazing to look around and see all the talent we have," says Thibeault, who rushed for a single-game school-record 292 yards against Grants Pass last season. "The offensive line is possibly the best we've ever had at South, and when you combine those guys with the skill guys, it makes for a great combination."
Kick-starting the playmakers will be quarterback Josh Milhollin, a strong-armed junior who has begun to appear on college recruiting lists despite limited varsity experience. Milhollin, 6-4 and 185 pounds, spent much of the offseason traveling to Portland to participate in camps put on by former Detroit Lions quarterback Greg Barton.
Milhollin earned his teammates' respect at the Gold Beach camp in June when he led the Panthers to a 14-0 win over defending Idaho state champion Meridian. He guided South Medford to an 80-yard touchdown drive and later rifled a 60-yard touchdown pass to Mitch Singler.
"He has great potential, and I'm excited to see what he can do," coach Singler says of Milhollin. "You look at him and see a drop-back passer, and he can certainly do that, but the kid can run, too. We've put in some sprint-out and bootleg plays to take advantage of his athleticism."
The Panthers have two other skill position standouts in wide receiver Casey Kline and running back Daniel Kinney, a transfer from Cascade Christian. Kinney will back up Thibeault and join him in the Panthers' two-back sets, but his lead role will be on defense, where he's expected to start at roverback.
Kline will be on the field in three-receiver sets.
Up front, center Steve Adams, 310-pound right guard Zach Barge and right tackle Kevin Thibeault — Patrick's younger brother — will join Smith and Contreras in forming what could become one of the state's better offensive lines.
"Last season, we had trouble running the ball against the more physical teams," coach Singler says. "Now our linemen are more physical and ornery themselves. We'll see what happens."
That orneriness should extend to South Medford's defense, where tackling machines E.J. Singler, Blake Lippitt and Sam McLaughlin return as starters at linebacker. Riley Jackson and Wallan — who registered eight takeaways last season — are back at the two end positions, and Ryan Retzlaff and Cameron Kynard return in the defensive backfield.
Throw in Kinney, a second-team, all-state linebacker at Cascade Christian last season, and the Panthers figure to be stingy when it comes to yielding yards and points.
E.J. Singler returns as the Panthers' punter — he averaged nearly 42 yards a boot last season — while McLaughlin is back at place-kicker.
The schedule is formidable, with road trips to Vancouver, Wash. (Evergreen), Redding, Calif. (Foothill) and Portland (Lincoln), nonconference home games against Central Valley League toughies West Salem and Sprague and then the meat grinder known as the Southwest Conference, culminating with a showdown against defending state champion Sheldon on Oct. 31 at Spiegelberg Stadium.
"Some people say we're crazy to play this schedule, with all the long road trips and tough teams," Patrick Thibeault says. "We might lose a game or two, but it's going to make us tougher in November, when it really counts."
And when it really means something to be ranked No. 1.