Much on the line when South-Sheldon square off

It's been six years since South Medford's football team has entered a game with as much magnitude as the one the No. 2-ranked Panthers face when ninth-ranked Sheldon comes to town Friday night.

How the Panthers will handle such an atmosphere ... that's the million-dollar question as both teams prepare for the ballyhooed regular-season finale.

At stake Friday for South Medford is a first-ever Southwest Conference title and No. 1 seed to the state playoffs, as well as a chance to prove the Panthers belong among a listing of the state's elite football programs.

"It's been one of our goals since we came in as freshman to win a title," says South Medford senior receiver Mitch Singler. "Just to know that it's finally here and that we're playing for a title ... this game means so much for our class and for our whole program in general."

Friday's game conjures up memories of the Panthers' regular-season finale in 2002 against rival North Medford in which South essentially made its mark with a 45-41 win over the previously undefeated Black Tornado.

That win secured the Southern Oregon Conference crown and is commonly referred to as the turning point in the Panthers' revival under head coach Bill Singler.

"I would say probably since that game this is the biggest game to date," says coach Singler, "because, again, it's the last game of the year for the conference championship. There's a lot on the line, plus a No. 1 seed."

That last aspect should not be considered an afterthought, especially since third-ranked Jesuit will be waiting at home in the state playoffs for a potential second-round matchup with the No. 2 seed out of the SWC.

"There's a definite advantage if you look at the bracket to being the first-place team," says Sheldon coach Marty Johnson, whose Irish are the defending 6A state champions. "But even when we've won state championships, we haven't necessarily had a road that's been paved for us so you take whatever is there."

While South Medford (8-1, 4-0 SWC) can secure an outright SWC crown and its first league title since 2004 with a win Friday, a loss could open the door for any number of possibilities. Sheldon (5-3, 3-1) would earn a share of the title with a victory, and Grants Pass (7-1, 3-1) could make that a three-way tie with a triumph over winless South Eugene.

In the event of a three-way tie that cannot be broken by a tiebreaker, a coin flip is used to determine playoff seeding. Representatives from all three schools flip a coin, with the odd coin winning the No. 1 seed. A secondary coin flip involving the remaining two schools is made to determine the No. 2 and 3 seeds by a call of heads or tails.

All coin flips will have occurred prior to Friday's games.

"We could win the game Friday and still end up being the third-place team," says Johnson, whose team had its 57-game conference winning streak snapped by Grants Pass three weeks ago. "Some of that is out of our control, so we've just got to play our game and let the chips fall where they may."

Even if there were no championship titles up for grabs, Friday's game would be one to circle on the calendar simply because of the amazing number of big-time players on each side of the field.

Sheldon and South Medford rank first and second, respectively, in total offense among SWC teams and put up at least 31 points per game. The defense for each team is equally as dominant, ranking just behind GP in total defense, and both teams have reached double digits on the plus side in turnover ratio.

"This is just going to be a great game with two really good, balanced teams," says Mitch Singler.

Sheldon endured a tough nonconference schedule and some tight matchups in league play to get to this point, but is coming off a 59-7 trashing of South Eugene and Johnson disputes any notion that the Irish are somehow having a "down" season.

"Everybody thinks things are so bad," he says. "We've played against teams that have played really well against us. Grants Pass and North Medford have very comparable talent to us, maybe they don't have a Curtis White or Charles Siddoway like we do but that doesn't mean you're automatically going to win when you have two Division I kids out there."

White, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound junior defensive end and receiver, and Siddoway, a 6-6, 315-pound senior lineman, are two of the top recruits in the state. White has already given a verbal commitment to play at Oregon in two years, while Siddoway's suitors include just about every Pac-10 program.

As good as those two may be, it's junior quarterback Jordan Johnson who truly makes things go at Sheldon. The 6-foot junior has completed 144 of 217 passes for 1,744 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. The shifty 170-pounder has also carried the ball 103 times for 475 yards and 10 scores out of the spread offense attack.

"He has a lot of savvy," says coach Singler. "He understands the game so well but, yet, he really is an improvisor. When things break down, sometimes that's when he's most dangerous because he really feels his way through traffic and has good quickness and explosiveness. We have our hands full with him."

Providing complements in the one-back, three-wide receiver set are tailback Cameron Abeene, who has 105 carries for 535 yards and eight TDs, and receivers John Campbell (44 catches for 529 yards and seven TDs), Anthony Yakovich (31 for 464) and White (37 for 414).

"Against Sheldon we know we're not going to stop them every play," says coach Singler. "We have to keep them from making the big plays, where they like to strike quickly and you have to keep up with them."

The same could be said, however, of the Panthers.

"They're really balanced and that's just a sign of a well-coached team," says coach Johnson. "They have big-play receivers and a great running back in (Patrick) Thibeault, and their defense is probably a little underrated."

Thibeault's play will be instrumental as the Panthers look to control the flow of play. The senior tailback enters the game having rushed for 804 yards and 15 TDs on 172 carries, and is supported by fullback Sam McLaughlin and backup tailback Daniel Kinney to give South a potent three-back set on occasion.

On the outside, Mitch and E.J. Singler have been a potent receiving combination all season. Mitch Singler has hauled in 30 passes for 706 yards and six scores, while fellow senior E.J. Singler has 44 receptions for 619 yards despite sitting out last week due to injury. The availability of E.J. Singler, who also starts at rover/strong safety, is expected to be a game-time decision.

Defensively, the Panthers are allowing a league-best 12.9 points per game and only 250 yards. They've also forced 27 turnovers.

Even with all that, though, there's no doubt that Sheldon enters Friday with more big-game experience.

"Sheldon's going to come down here with that poise and that focus and we've got to match that," says Mitch Singler.

Having won eight of its last nine SWC games and faced a formidable preseason schedule itself, South Medford does have some tangibles to hang its hat on leading into Friday's finale.

"In the last couple years, this team has responded to everything that's been thrown at them," says coach Singler, whose Panthers will be making their sixth trip to the state playoffs in seven years. "This is just another great opportunity for us."

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

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