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South Medford's Sam Owirka, in white, hits the ball through the arms of Centennial's Anna Vieru in the third game as the Eagles' Sydney Olson also goes up for the block. South Medford won the Class 6A state play-in game in four sets to advance to the first round of the state playoffs. - Andy Atkinson

Panthers serve up play-in win

Sam Owirka's Saturday morning breakfast was, simply put, perfect.

The warm plate of cinnamon-roll flavored french toast at a local diner with her South Medford volleyball teammates was delicious, the senior outside hitter said. And getting to enjoy it while laughing and sharing stories with her squad? Even better.

Best of all, their 10:30 a.m. get-together seemed to pay off later that day. The Panthers went on to beat Centennial 25-19, 22-25, 25-9, 25-23 in a stomach-churning Class 6A state play-in match at South Medford High.

Mind you, the lightly fried, sweet bread wasn't the culprit. The Panthers' troubles started when the Eagles started cooking up some offense.

Of course, the end result was a delicious one for the home team.

"I think the breakfast really brought us all together," said Owirka, who performed on the court like a gourmet chef might in the kitchen with 19 kills, eight aces and 25 digs. "We didn't really talk about the game; it was more of a team bonding kind of thing. We just wanted to be together as a team really."

With the win, South ensured it will be together for at least one more contest: the Panthers will play an opponent to be determined on the road Wednesday in the opening round of the 32-team state playoffs.

"Today was a true test of where they are and what they want to do as a team," South Medford head coach Sarah Costa said. "We laid it all out and said, 'This could be it. And if this is it, this is it, but let's go out there and put it all on the line.' And they did that. There were times when it was a little scary and we weren't sure where they were going to go with it, but we knew they were putting it all on the line."

After a solid Game 1 win, Owirka helped South race out to an 11-7 Game 2 lead with several kills and aces. A fine serving stretch by Chandler Criswell bumped up South's edge to 17-11, but the Eagles turned on an 11-4 run to capture a 22-21 advantage and force the Panthers to call a timeout.

Centennial secured the second game 25-22 before South roared out to a 24-5 lead en route to a 25-9 Game 3 rout.

The Panthers (12-10) seemed to be in control in the fourth set with their 19-11 advantage, but the Eagles rallied, rattling off eight straight to tie things up. What ensued was a back-and-forth battle that ended with South posting the last three points, including two kills by senior Miranda Marincus.

"It was kind of frightening at first, but we were just like, 'We've got to get the next one, we are not gonna let it get us down,' because when we get down we don't play as well," said Marincus, who had 10 kills and 12 digs. "We just had to stay up and positive."

South libero Emily Cutting had 24 digs and Criswell recorded 32 assists.

Senior outside/middle Brianna Hogan, standing tall at 6-foot-2, was dominant at times for Centennial (6-12), which finished sixth in a strong Mt. Hood Conference that features Central Catholic, Barlow and Gresham.

"I looked online to see what conference they play in," Owirka said. "They've got some good teams, so we knew we were gonna have to fight."

South lost in five sets to Grants Pass in a Southern Oregon Hybrid playoff match on Thursday, forcing the Panthers into Saturday's play-in game. The Cavers and South tied for third place in the SOH standings with their 3-5 records, and the conference's top three squads automatically qualified for the state playoffs. The tie prompted the SOH playoff.

"We're kind of making it harder on ourselves, but it's OK," Costa said. "This is a good win. It gives us momentum."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com

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