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From left, Cameron Remstedt, Jake McCoy, Ben Casebier, Daniel Jimenez, Matt Retzlaff, Max Farthing and Adrian Garcia have helped the South Medford secondary become a formidable force. - Julia Moore

Air Traffic Controllers

For a program that has shown a knack for taking to the air on offense, third-ranked South Medford is proving that success in the passing game can come on both sides of the football this season.

Buoyed by strong senior leadership and a two-deep list of athletes comfortable with sharing the wealth, the Panther secondary is re-routing passes on a record pace heading into Friday's regular-season finale against No. 1 Sheldon.

Through eight games, the Panthers have combined to haul in 20 interceptions, just six shy of equaling the school record set in 1988 during a 12-game season.

"After the first few games, we kinda had that in our sights and that's kinda become our goal for by the end of the season," says senior strong safety Matt Retzlaff.

Five defensive backs boast at least three picks apiece, with Retzlaff and senior cornerback Daniel Jimenez each nabbing four interceptions to lead the pack. Senior strong safety Jack McCoy and junior cornerbacks Adrian Garcia and Max Farthing each have three interceptions, with one apiece hauled in by sophomore Anthony Gomez, junior Grady Smith and senior Desmond Harrington.

"We practice hard and we pay attention to doing our jobs and everyone's on the same page," Retzlaff says of the secret to success. "The truth of it is our linebackers and D-line really set it all up. When they put that pressure on the quarterback, the quarterback has more chances to make errors and that really helps us DBs out. We're just the ones that make the plays and get in the newspaper, but to be honest, they're the ones who really make it happen."

While that certainly is true since one feeds off the other, there's no denying that the current Panther group has shown a definite knack for making plays after the ball takes flight. Retzlaff has returned two interceptions for touchdowns, while Jimenez has one TD return. Both also boast special teams scores.

"I don't think we've had a group like that in the secondary, going from corner to corner to safety to safety, that have played so well together," says Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "We've got some good athletes back there and obviously the better athletes you have, the better opportunity to make plays."

The interesting thing is that the entire group is in its first year together. Retzlaff is the only returning starter in the bunch, with Garcia moving up from the junior varsity, Jimenez coming from Grants Pass and McCoy from Ashland. Farthing is a reserve cornerback but has seen plenty of action in Garcia's absence due to injury, while senior free safety Cameron Remstedt has shared duties with McCoy to comprise the main figures in the secondary.

"That's one great thing about our secondary is that we have good backups," says Retzlaff. "They contribute just as well as the first-stringers and that's definitely another key in all of our success."

And as Jimenez says, it didn't take long for the group to develop a good chemistry.

"Our secondary has a really close bond between each other and we just trust each other really well and know that if one of us is not there, the others are going to have our back," says the senior. "It's like a big family with us, we're really tight. We don't care who gets the ball, just as long as it's a turnover."

Thanks in large part to the secondary's contributions, South Medford leads the Southwest Conference in turnover ratio at plus-23.

"They're all really contributing to the success of our team," says Singler. "To lead our league with a turnover ratio like that, that's pretty darn good. You're getting two or three turnovers per game with numbers like that."

"They just are great kids to be around," adds the head coach. "They're coachable and they're doing the things that (defensive coordinator) Mike Johnston wants them to do and they're just taking it from there. They want to win and then you put their athleticism with it, shoot, you're going to make some plays."

Singler says the group has done a good job of playing their role first and foremost and then capitalizing on their given abilities. While he insists interceptions come from letting the game come to you, being in the right spot and then driving on the ball, it does take a certain type of player to put it all together.

"A lot of that is due just because of their confidence as an athlete," Singler says of the interceptions. "If you're a tentative player and a tentative athlete you're not going to make those plays, you're going to be more cautious and take the high road and say, 'You know what, I'm just going to keep everything in front of me and play football.'"

"To a large degree that's very important to a secondary guy, keep things in front of you and rallying to the ball," adds the coach, "but these guys keep things in front of them and at the same point, when the ball is in the air, they're ball-hawking and going after the ball and I think that's the result you see in the interceptions we've had. It's not just because guys are making bad throws, it's because these guys are aggressive to the throw."

All that will come to a head Friday against the Irish, who boast one of the state's top passing attacks behind senior quarterback Dillon Miller and standout receivers Connor Strahm and Mitch Carman, among others.

"This will probably be their biggest test in the passing game up to date," says Singler. "They're going to spread you out horizontally and then they're going to test you vertically and you're going to have to be on your best behavior as to what you're doing because if you gamble against this team and take a bad angle on an interception, it's going to result in a touchdown. You've got to be real clear about what you're doing and what your coverage is and your responsibility and just go play football."

It's sage advice that the Panthers have taken to heart, knowing full well that Friday will be rife with highs and lows when attempting to slow Sheldon.

"They get me a little nervous but excited," says Retzlaff. "I've been thinking about this game for two or three weeks in some way, it's just kinda been kept in the back of my mind. They're definitely dangerous, but that's just what makes defense so much fun, that toughness and character and what you have in your heart in those moments."

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

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