West Salem coach Shawn Stanley sees many aspects in South Medford that resemble his 2007 Titans' squad, which reached the state semifinals and finished with a No. 4 ranking.
"They remind me of kids we had last year, and I wouldn't want to play them either," Stanley said. "They (the Panthers) have got lots of size and athletic ability. We're going to have our hands full. They are one of the top football teams in the state, and we are expecting a war."
South Medford opens a season filled with high expectations by hosting Stanley and West Salem tonight at Spiegelberg Stadium in an endowment game at 7 o'clock.
In other area games tonight, Crater travels to Wilsonville, Ashland plays at Henley and Madras visits Eagle Point.
South Medford returns a bevy of talented skill players on a team that finished 8-3 overall and 4-1, second, in the Southwest Conference.
West Salem, on the other hand, enters with uncertainty throughout its lineup after graduating the majority of productivity from last season. The Titans won the Central Valley Conference and finished 10-2 overall, but lose six players who received all-state accolades. Those include wide receiver/defensive back Jordan Bishop, now at Oregon State, tight end/linebacker John Gallagher, now at Dartmouth, kicker/punter Ryan Allen, also at Oregon State, and guard Kekai Walker, a first-team all-state performer.
West Salem returns just one on the offensive side in 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior lineman Tyler Steele. Steele was also an honorable mention all-state defensive lineman and is one of just three returners on that side of the ball.
Senior linebackers Tyler Scheller (6-2, 210) and Robby Martinez (5-9, 190) also return.
"We have a lot less talent but more guys we can rotate through," Stanley said. "Our kids don't really know where we are yet. We are going to find out in a hurry. We're going to try to play a team that's better than us. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
Offensively, the Titans will rely on sophomore quarterback Brett Smith. He was the first freshman to play for Stanley when he filled in at times last season.
"He's a playmaker," Stanley said. "He has a real strong arm and is really composed. He doesn't have a deer-in-the-headlights look."
Said South Medford coach Bill Singler: "I understand he (Smith) could be the best athlete on the team. If they break him loose and we're not ready, he could do some damage."
The season opener marks the debut of South Medford's junior quarterback Josh Milhollin. The 6-4, 185-pounder experienced success on the JV level and is "excited" for his first start and to take the reigns of an offense filled with multiple weapons.
"I felt like this past offseason, I worked really hard and did all the right stuff to get me ready for this moment," Milhollin said. "I think we're ready and are going to come out strong."
Singler has been pleased with the progress of Milhollin but hopes the Panthers, despite playmakers on the ends in senior wide receivers Mitch Singler and E.J. Singler, can establish the running game early and often against the Titans to ease the pressure on his first-year signal caller.
"He (Milhollin) understands what's expected of him," coach Singler said. "Now it's reacting to the game speed and faster athletes than he saw on JV. His demeanor has been pretty good. I haven't seen the highs and lows out of him I saw on JV ball and that's good."
The Panthers enter the contest with a few key injuries, most notably to defensive tackle/offensive guard Zach Barge (high ankle sprain), right tackle Kevin Thibeault (ankle) and linebacker/fullback Sam McLaughlin (knee). Barge is doubtful while Thibeault and McLaughlin are probable.
"Usually you've got another week to get ready, but we don't have time to wait," coach Singler said. "It's one of those games you go in by the seat of your pants and make adjustments as the game goes on."
And the pressure of high expectations begins for the Panthers.
"We're expecting that they (the Titans) have nothing to lose," Mitch Singler said. "We have a big target on our backs. Really, it's on us. If we don't come out ready to play, West Salem is the kind of team that will jump on us."
- MADRAS AT EAGLE POINT — The Jacob Schauffler era begins at Eagle Point when the Eagles host the Madras White Buffalos. Madras, playing an independent schedule, won just three games last season, and dropped its final four including a 70-7 loss to Ontario. Madras and Eagle Point opened the season a year ago at Madras with the Eagles posting a 44-20 victory.
- CRATER AT WILSONVILLE — Wilsonville overcame a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter, taking advantage of Crater mistakes and a huge performance from senior wide receiver Alec Jernstedt, to win 27-21 in the season opener a year ago in Central Point. Jernstedt hauled in a 49-yard touchdown with 1:30 to play to break a 21-21 tie. Wilsonville started the season 6-1 before dropping their final four games. Crater reached the playoffs last season and boast considerable depth on both sides of the ball.
- ASHLAND AT HENLEY — Ashland enters the season coming off an 11-1 record and a Southern Sky Conference title. The Grizzlies open this season with the same opponent, Henley, as last year. Ashland survived for a 21-13 victory last year. Henley, in the Class 4A Skyline Conference, reached the playoffs last season and return eight offensive starters and six on defense. Ashland will break in a new quarterback but has a strong ground game led by Lewis Sebrell.
Reach sports reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org