South Medford’s Patrick Thibeault makes a move after the catch for a 38-yard touchdown against Sunset on Friday. - Jamie Lusch

South staves off Sunset

The way quarterback A.J. Palazzolo and the South Medford offense was playing, you figured it was only a matter of time before the Panthers would break loose for some big plays Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.

Time wasn't on their side, however, as visiting Sunset chewed up minute after minute with its fly offense and hardly let the hometown boys play at all in taking a 14-7 lead into the locker room.

Thankfully for the Panthers, their defense stiffened in the second half and Palazzolo and company went on a second-half surge to rally South Medford to a 28-21 homecoming victory.

"I knew the offense would get our shot," said Palazzolo, who completed 18 of 25 passes for a career-high 366 yards and four touchdowns. "It's a team game, and I knew the defense was going to step up and the offense would be ready when we had our chance."

The Panthers (2-1) took the second-half kickoff and appeared destined to tie the game when junior receiver Mitch Singler had the ball dislodged by Sunset's Johnny Verhoest at the Apollos' 21-yard line.

Undaunted, South bowed its back and stopped Sunset for the first time in the game with a three-and-out series.

Four plays later, Palazzolo slipped a simple screen pass to tailback Patrick Thibeault, and the junior did the rest on a nifty 38-yard catch and run for a score to tie the game at 14-all.

"My linemen pulled out and they were just busting people up," said Thibeault. "I just made two cuts and I was in the end zone."

The Apollos (1-3) reclaimed the lead on a play that saw quarterback Michael Verbeek spin off several would-be tacklers for a 35-yard scamper to paydirt just 50 seconds into the fourth quarter.

"I thought we turned the momentum in the third quarter," said South coach Bill Singler, "then they end up getting that fluky thing on the quarterback play. We have guys around and all of a sudden he just pops out."

Palazzolo didn't give the Panther coaches long to think about what happened on the play, quickly guiding South into scoring position when he found Thibeault on a wheel route all alone in the right flat. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder marched down to the Sunset 14 on a 47-yard gain.

Two plays later, Palazzolo rolled left and found Mitch Singler wide open in the end zone to tie the game at 21-all with 8:55 to play. It was the second scoring strike between the two for the game and allowed Singler to finish with seven catches for 112 yards.

D.J. Titus, Rodolpho Contreras and Andrew Bennett each came up with big defensive plays to deny Sunset on its next drive, but the Apollos caught a break when Kyle Chamberlain's punt found no-man's land and ended up rolling to the South 10 for a 61-yard effort.

Needing to march 90 yards with only six minutes to play, Palazzolo and crew did it in just 100 seconds.

An 11-yard run by Sam McLaughlin created some space, another 5-yard run by Thibeault kept the Apollos honest and an 11-yard strike to E.J. Singler had the Panther faithful eager for more.

That hunger was soon sated by Thibeault, who sneaked into the right flat again and had nothing but real estate in front of him after hauling in a Palazzolo pass.

"I looked up and nobody was there so I just put on the gassers," said the tailback.

Thibeault outran Sunset's Andrew Jenks up the sideline, slowed to stave off a tackle attempt by Andrew Pollard and regained enough momentum to race in for a 63-yard score.

"We're having a little bit of trouble running the ball, but I'm fine with catching the ball," said Thibeault, who finished with four receptions for 160 yards compared to 39 yards rushing on nine carries. "As long as we're getting yards and making plays, that's cool with me. It doesn't really matter how we do it."

Sunset's attempt to tie the game inside the final 41/2 minutes was denied at the South 31 when Verbeek's fourth-down pass was wide of its target.

"You've got to give them credit," coach Singler said. "They had a great game plan and they executed it terrifically. They kept us off the field and they chewed up real estate and clock time."

Sunset had the ball for almost 18 of the opening 24 minutes of the contest, scoring on its first two drives before having a third halted by halftime. The Apollos marched 81 yards on 13 plays following the opening kickoff, taking a 7-0 lead on a 6-yard run by Wes Wenzel.

"I looked up after their first drive and we had four minutes left in the quarter," said coach Singler, "it was incredible. You can't do much on offense if you don't have the ball."

The Panthers turned the ball over on downs on their first possession, and Sunset went back to work with a 15-play drive that took 9:43 off the clock. Verbeek hit Pollard on an 8-yard strike for a 14-0 lead.

"Our hope was to keep the ball out of their hands," said Sunset coach Mike Mitchell. "They're explosive. They have some good receivers and the quarterback does a great job."

Especially in a two-minute drill. It was Palazzolo's solid decision-making that may have provided the biggest key to Friday's win, with the senior directing his team to its first TD with 21.9 seconds to go until halftime.

"Scoring before half was crucial," said coach Singler. "That really gave us a shot in the arm at halftime."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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