Smoke from regional wildfires has left a literal cloud hovering over the high school boys soccer season, leading to game cancellations and forcing teams to move practice sessions indoors.
And following a 3-0 victory Saturday by North Medford over crosstown rival South Medford — under sunny skies, outside the confines of a school gymnasium on the Panthers’ home turf — it practically felt like soccer Shangri-La for all players involved.
“There was even smoke in the gym, that’s how bad it was around here,” North Medford junior forward Caleb Forte said. “We were practicing and you’d look up at the rafters and there was just, like, smoke.”
“We were all smiling during warmups,” he added. “We were excited to be out here.”
Unlike South Medford, North Medford managed to squeeze in one nonleague match prior to facing the Panthers in its Southwest Conference opener.
And the daunting circumstances for South didn’t stop there: The youthful Panthers, with only two seniors on their roster, were forced to play back-to-back games within an 18-hour period against perhaps the two best teams in the SWC, going on the road Friday night to face defending conference champion South Eugene, which is again expected to be the class of the league.
“Having two games in a row is not ideal, but with this type of weather it’s really hard,” South Medford coach Claudio Villa said. “We’re trying to find as much time as possible so we’re not losing those games.”
“I want to say we’re facing probably two of the top teams in (the SWC) right now, from what I’ve seen,” he added. “We’re trying to just keep up with their speed, physically. (North has) some fast, very crafty players. And being two, three years younger, the best you can do is just try to keep up physically.”
Nevertheless, South (0-2, 0-2 SWC) gave North (1-1, 1-0) about all it could handle in the first half. The Panthers briefly controlled the action and nearly took the early lead with a strong shot on goal by sophomore midfielder Ruben Rodriguez, but senior keeper Kendal James was able to secure the ball to keep the game scoreless.
“The part in the first half where they were knocking on the door, our keeper made a great save,” North coach Michael Belzberg said. “I mean, they could’ve gone up 1-0 at halftime. They looked good.”
Said Rodriguez: “We knew that our fitness wasn’t as good as the other team’s, so we just decided that we wanted to go as hard as we could right at the beginning and maybe get a goal right away.”
The Black Tornado finally broke through in the 27th minute after senior midfielder Carlos Cordoba was fouled inside the box, leading to a penalty kick by senior defender Mauricio Paz, who slipped the ball into the lower right corner of the net past the Panthers’ freshman keeper, Jude Pannell.
In the second half, however, North’s superior speed and skill took its toll on South.
North went up 2-0 in the 55th minute on a picturesque pass from junior defender Heriberto Gallegos to streaking senior midfielder Luis Cerna, who hooked the ball into the short corner.
“He’s always trying to find me,” Cerna said of the artistic play initiated by Gallegos.
Seven minutes later, Cerna assisted on North’s third goal, sending a well-placed cross to Forte, who made it look easy as he smoked the ball from 20 yards out.
And speaking of smoke, players and coaches on both sides were left hoping the hazy conditions that had confined them to training in condensed, indoor spaces were behind them.
“We were just trying to get a feel for the game again and trying to get used to playing with each other,” South senior midfielder Justice Evans said. “I felt like we did decent. We just have a few things we need to work on technically, but we’ll be ready next time (we play North).”
“We’re still getting used to the turf and getting used to all the outdoor elements,” he added.
— Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4490 or email@example.com