There's such a thing as being too hospitable, and second-ranked South Medford was that to a fault against No. 7 Southridge Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
The Panthers built a 21-10 lead over the visitors from Beaverton but essentially became their own worst enemies in fumbling away their best chance at a first-ever berth in the Class 6A football state semifinals.
South Medford turned the ball over four times on six fumbles, initially keeping the Skyhawks in contention until they could capitalize and pull away with 42 straight points for a 52-21 triumph under chilly conditions.
"We were prepared and came out ready to play," said Panthers senior E.J. Singler, who caught five passes for 66 yards and a touchdown to go with a handful of tackles. "It wasn't our lack of heart or anything that lost the game, the turnovers were a big key. I don't think the score really showed how close it was."
The Southwest Conference champions actually led the league in turnover margin at plus-11, and had lost only eight fumbles all season heading into the state quarterfinals.
Even more disastrous for the Panthers (10-2) was that all of the fumbles came in South Medford territory, leaving Southridge with a short field to work with time after time. The Skyhawks scored 17 of their 24 first-half points off Panther turnovers, and 24 points overall.
"Turnovers are part of a football game," said Southridge head coach Brad Mastrud. "Whether they're forced turnovers or just turnovers, it makes no difference. That's a huge part of the game."
The Skyhawks (10-2) advance to face Metro rival Beaverton in next week's semifinals at PGE Park in Portland. The Beavers beat Southridge 10-7 earlier this season. A third Metro League team, No. 3 Jesuit will take on top-ranked Lake Oswego in the other semifinal.
After holding Southridge to a three-and-out on the game's first series, South Medford needed just four plays to take a 7-0 lead. Senior receiver Mitch Singler got behind Kalen Powell for a 41-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Josh Milhollin to cap the 59-yard drive.
Another three-and-out series returned the ball to the Panthers, but their ensuing drive was halted when senior fullback Sam McLaughlin fumbled the ball on a bobbled screen pass. McLaughlin appeared to get hit just as he was attempting to secure the ball but, instead, the Skyhawks took over possession at the Panthers' 48-yard line.
Eleven plays later, Southridge was forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Trevor Harman to cut its deficit to 7-3 with 3:42 to go in the first quarter.
Undaunted, South Medford drove 75 yards in four plays — highlighted by a 40-yard run from senior tailback Patrick Thibeault — to regain momentum. Milhollin found a leaping E.J. Singler in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown to cap the 62-second drive.
Southridge followed with another three-and-out series, but caught a break moments later in one of the defining moments of the game.
On second-and-six from the South Medford 26, the Panthers stacked four receivers on the right side for a quick screen to senior Daniel Kinney, but the ball never made it that far. Milhollin's lateral throw bounced short of Kinney and was scooped up by Harman and returned 20 yards for a touchdown.
Instead of the red-hot Panthers potentially marching down for another score — or at the very least chew up the clock — the Skyhawks were able to pull within 14-10 as time expired in the first quarter.
"That was a big play," said Mastrud. "We've tried a few of those things here and there and when they work they're awesome and when they don't they usually blow up in your face. It was a great play for Harman to pick the ball up and go score and get us back."
The quick screen to Kinney was a new wrinkle for the Panthers that never really got ironed out.
"We wanted to just try something and it backfired on us," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "Sometimes in games things happen. It was there, all we had to do was complete the pass."
Still, the Panthers proved resilient and answered with what they believed might be a momentum-turning touchdown when Mitch Singler once again got behind the defense and outran everyone for a 79-yard touchdown reception.
Making the play more impressive was the fact that the snap to Milhollin was high on the play and he had to tip it to himself before regrouping and stepping up in the pocket for a perfectly placed ball that hit his receiver in stride just past midfield.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, everything went downhill from there.
Southridge answered with a 59-yard scoring strike from Kellen Mastrud to Taylor Goodling on a blown coverage, then took advantage inside the final two minutes of the first half when the ball simply slipped out of Milhollin's hands as he went to dump off a screen pass to McLaughlin.
"I honestly can't tell you why that happened," Milhollin said later of the fumbles. "If I could've fixed it, I would've and we wouldn't be like we're feeling right now. That's a tough thing that happens. It just wasn't our day."
Paul Tuma secured the late gift at the South Medford 26 after the 18-yard loss and, two plays later, Kirk Werhane slipped through a tackle and scooted 15 yards into the end zone to give Southridge a 24-21 lead with 1:20 until intermission.
The second half provided more of the same for the Panthers, with Thibeault never getting the handle on a handoff and Grant Kelly pouncing on the loose ball on the first series out of the locker room.
Southridge answered with a 10-play scoring drive, capped by the first of two 1-yard quarterback sneaks in the second half by Kellen Mastrud for a 31-21 advantage.
Milhollin connected with Kinney on a third-down, 40-yard gain to give the Panthers a chance to answer at the Southridge 20, but the drive stalled from there when the ball again slipped from Milhollin's hand as he went to throw a fourth-down pass.
The Skyhawks then drove 74 yards in seven plays for another score, with Werhane bursting through the middle for an 8-yard TD. The key play on the drive involved a 36-yard hookup from Mastrud to Mitch Mathews on third-and-seven at the Skyhawks' 29.
With a 38-21 advantage and 1:41 to go in the third quarter, Southridge then opted to drop seven players in defensive coverage and rush four to deny the Panthers' passing attack.
"Teams make adjustments, and they just happened to make the right adjustments at the right time tonight," said Milhollin. "And I think we lost our edge. We weren't passing with a vengeance, weren't catching and weren't running with a vengeance in the second half. When it rains it pours sometimes."
Southridge tacked on touchdown runs by Mastrud and a 2-yarder by William Lowe with 1:24 to play for the final margin in a game that went downhill quick on the Panthers.
"We couldn't recapture momentum so you've got to give a lot of credit to Southridge," said coach Singler. "They scored and capitalized on the turnovers and then went on kind of a snowball run from there. We just couldn't recapture any momentum."
Milhollin finished with 265 yards and three TDs on 13-for-25 passing, with Mitch Singler taking in five of those passes for 150 yards and two scores. Thibeault added 64 yards on 17 carries, but had 60 of those on his first five attempts and appeared to sustain an injury to his right hand on the Panthers' first possession of the second half.
Werhane rumbled for 118 yards and two scores on 21 carries to pace Southridge, with Mastrud completing 11 of 17 passes for 163 yards and one TD. Mathews hauled in five passes for 65 yards and Goodling added 63 yards on two receptions.
"If we wanted to beat these guys we would've had to go the distance and we didn't do it," added Mitch Singler.
At Spiegelberg Stadium
Southridge 10 14 14 14 —52
South Medford 14 7 0 0 —21
SM — M. Singler 41 pass from Milhollin (McLaughlin kick)
SR — FG Harman 25
SM — E. Singler 12 pass from Milhollin (McLaughlin kick)
SR — Harman 20 fumble return (Harman kick)
SM — M. Singler 79 pass from Milhollin (McLaughlin kick)
SR — Goodling 59 pass from Mastrud (Harman kick)
SR — Werhane 15 run (Harman kick)
SR — Mastrud 1 run (Harman kick)
SR — Werhane 8 run (Harman kick)
SR — Mastrud 1 run (Harman kick)
SR — Lowe 2 run (Harman kick)
First Downs 18 12
Rushes-Yards 46-231 24-61
Passing Yards 163 265
Comp-Att-Int 11-17-0 13-25-0
Total Yards 394 326
Punts 4-35.5 3-34.0
Fumbles-lost 1-1 6-4
Penalties-yards 2-22 2-12
Southridge — Werhane 21-118, Tanuvasa 7-41, Lowe 8-45, Mastrud 10-27.
South Medford — Thibeault 17-64, Kinney 3-20, McLaughlin 3-12, Milhollin 6-(-37), Townsend 1-2.
Southridge — Mastrud 11-17-0 163.
South Medford — Milhollin 13-25-0 265.
Southridge — Mathews 5-65, Goodling 2-63, Tanuvasa 1-11, Rose 1-14, Harman 1-6, Powell 1-3.
South Medford — M. Singler 5-150, E. Singler 5-66, Kinney 1-40, Thibeault 1-8, McLaughlin 1-1.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com