Whatever growing pains the South Medford football team has endured through the first six weeks of the season, all those excuses fly out the window now.
Entering Week 7, the Panthers can no long consider themselves a young and inexperienced team despite returning only three starters from a year ago.
The rubber hits the road beginning Friday, and won’t stop for hopefully several weeks to come for South Medford, which is ranked No. 9 in the Class 6A coaches poll and plays host to No. 5 Sheldon at Spiegelberg Stadium on Friday night. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
“Every week is big,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “In football you have to approach it that way. No question I think probably the three best teams on our schedule are the three coming up (in Sheldon, Grants Pass and North Medford). The preseason is over. We wipe the slate clean and start over.”
The Panthers enter Friday’s game with a 5-1 record overall and 1-0 tally in Southwest Conference play, while Sheldon is also 1-0 in SWC play and 4-2 overall against one of the toughest schedules played thus far in the state.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge with Sheldon but they’re a different beast,” said Singler. “We definitely have our hands full.”
“They’ve got skill, they’ve got size, they’ve got speed, they’ve got toughness ... they’ve got all you need in a football team to compete for a state championship,” added the coach. “I’d say they’re definitely one of the top five teams in the state. Even though they’ve lost a couple games, they’ve lost to really good teams in the last seconds of those games so they very well could be undefeated.”
That said, South Medford is the two-time defending SWC champions and isn’t eager to give up that role without a battle.
“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with this team the last few years, whether it’s been at the freshman, JV or varsity level,” said Singler, “so I think these kids are confident in themselves. But how the game turns out, I don’t crystal ball that stuff. I just want our kids to play well and let the chips fall where they may.”
Sheldon is already 1-0 at Spiegelberg this season after topping North Medford, 35-6, two weeks ago, and head coach Josh Line’s group will certainly be amped up to make that 2-0.
The Irish are guided by senior quarterback Michael Johnson Jr., who is a Penn State commit, and senior tight end/defensive lineman Patrick Herbert, who is bound to join his brother Justin (potentially) at Oregon.
Johnson is one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks and, despite missing the first two weeks of the season with a shoulder injury, ranks second in the SWC in rushing (59 carries, 550 yards, five touchdowns) while also completing 29 of 53 passes for 674 yards and eight scores.
“He’s playing at a different level than he did last year,” said Singler, “you can just see the confidence in him. His decision-making is better, he’s throwing the ball better and he certainly has a huge burst of speed as a runner. He causes you a lot of conflict.”
Herbert has caught 22 passes for 336 yards and nine TDs and is flanked by playmakers like senior tailback Matthew Burgess, who is averaging 7.1 yards per carry with nine TDs and is also a receiving threat out of the backfield.
Zach Folsom, Braden Klinko and Jack Folsom have also sparked an Irish offense that is averaging 395 yards of total offense and nearly 46 points per game.
Helping South Medford’s cause is a defense that leads the SWC after allowing an average of 277 yards and 15 points per game. The Panthers have had success at every level, forcing 10 turnovers, but have been especially active with a deep linebacker corps that features Cole Boster, James Duane, Jaxin Kinler and Jagger Burrill.
Tackling was an issue during last week’s homecoming win over Roseburg, but Singler said the team went back to some fundamental work in practice this week and hopes that has been corrected.
“Quite frankly it was a lack of focus on our part,” said Singler. “I think kids in some regard went through the motions and you can’t do that versus any opponent. We definitely lacked some fundamentals in that area so hopefully we corrected that and do a better job of it in game situations because if we tackle again this week as we did last week, it’s going to be a different result.”
Offensively, South Medford has shown the kind of balance and ball-control ability Singler strives for each season under the direction of senior quarterback Giovanni Bottero, who has completed 75 of 116 passes for 1,004 yards, 10 TDs and three interceptions.
“I like the fact that we’ve got a lot of different kids contributing,” said Singler.
With Roseburg double-teaming junior Austin Boster for most of last week, the Panthers also showed they have diverse receiving weapons in senior Trevor Marthoski, Trent DeBoer and Adam Nanez. All have eclipsed 100 yards receiving this year, with Boster leading the charge at 22 catches for 447 yards and seven scores.
The Panthers also continue to receive steady play from senior running back Terrence Butler and junior Mason DeVries, who each fall among the top 6 runners in the SWC. Butler has run for 506 yards and nine TDs and caught 14 passes, while DeVries has run for nearly 400 yards and two scores and provided a pivotal spark with a kickoff return TD last week.
“We just can’t worry about them, we’ve just got to worry about ourselves,” said Singler. “We’ve just got to worry about trying to put our best foot forward. Against a team like Sheldon, you’ve got to play aggressively and can’t worry about looking at the scoreboard.”