It doesn’t take much to get players and fans from South Medford and Grants Pass high schools excited about their annual football clash, but Friday night’s contest has plenty hanging in the balance for each school.
With both teams standing 5-2 overall and 1-1 in the Southwest Conference race — one game behind first-place Sheldon — the winner will take a big step toward securing an automatic berth in the Class 6A state playoffs.
And that should send an already energized setting at Mel Ingram Field in Grants Pass to another level.
“I consider Mel Ingram Field maybe the top high school venue for a football game,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “I love Spiegelberg Stadium, don’t get me wrong, but I think the intimacy of Mel Ingram Field with the stands full and they don’t have a track in there so the fans are close to the sidelines and are close to everything. It’s so compacted in there it can be real loud and raucous, especially if they’re playing well.”
In Friday’s other action involving SWC teams, North Medford is home at Spiegelberg Stadium against Aloha while Sheldon is host to Roseburg.
At the 5A level, Crater and Churchill square off in Eugene for the top spot in the Midwestern League South Division, while Eagle Point is at North Eugene and Ashland at South Eugene.
Phoenix is home against North Valley in 4A action, while Cascade Christian will look to extend its streak of 50-plus point games to six straight at the 3A level when it faces Brookings-Harbor at U.S. Cellular Community Park, and St. Mary’s is at South Umpqua.
South Medford has won two straight over Grants Pass since a three-year run of wins by the Cavemen in a series dominated overall by Singler’s Panthers. That won’t matter much this time, mind you, with Singler and company aware of GP’s potential after averaging 440 yards and nearly 42 points per game through seven weeks.
“They’ve got a lot of talent, especially at all the skill positions,” said Singler. “You look at them across the board and, shoot, they’re one of the leading offensive point scorers in the state, not just our league.”
Junior quarterback Chase Coyle has been everything GP head coach John Musser hoped for and more when he moved two-year starter Blain Hobbs to the perimeter to make room for Coyle’s passing ability. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Coyle leads the SWC in passing after completing 143 of 219 attempts for 2,085 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Coyle has a bevy of breakaway targets among his receiving corps, with seniors Randy Clark (44 catches, 859 yards, 11 TDs), Hobbs (36 catches, 568 yards, four TDs) and Kobrin Lopez (39 catches, 483 yards, five TDs) ranking at the top of the SWC list.
With senior tailback Jaren Emptage (78 carries, 552 yards, 13 TDs) returning from injury to power an effective running game with junior Jake Henricks (61 carries, 260 yards, three TDs), the Cavemen pose quite a challenge on the offensive side.
“From the quarterback to wide receivers and running backs,” said Singler, “they all have talent and speed and quickness, and they really make you defend the field horizontally and vertically. It really stretches you thin defensively and it’s going to be a tough week. We’re going to be challenged immensely.”
Where the Cavemen have struggled, however, is on defense after a host of injuries depleted their linebacker corps and led to GP allowing a league-worst 422 yard and nearly 37 points per game.
South Medford certainly has an offense capable of reaching those totals behind the steadily improving play of senior quarterback Giovanni Bottero and a receiving corps that is coming into its own thanks to junior Austin Boster and senior Trevor Marthoski.
In last week’s loss to Sheldon, Bottero shouldered the bulk of the load by passing for 300 yards and three TDs to offset a rare slow night by Panthers running backs Terrence Butler and Mason DeVries.
“We found ways to move the ball against a real good team,” said Singler. “Even though they shut down our run game on offense, I thought Gio really stepped up and made some plays from the quarterback position and the guys caught the ball and we found ways to move it against Sheldon when sometimes in years past we haven’t been able to do that.”
Bottero has completed 95 of 147 passes for 1,304 yards, 13 TDs and four interceptions, with Boster ranking third in the SWC by hauling in 29 receptions for 559 yards and eight scores. Marthoski has come on strong in recent weeks with his big-play ability, turning seven catches into 210 yards and three TDs.
Butler and DeVries rank fifth and sixth, respectively, among SWC runners and each will look to dial it up a notch this week after struggling against the Irish in a game that limited their opportunities after the Panthers fell behind 21-0 early in the second quarter. Thus far, Butler has run for 515 yards and nine TDs on 105 carries, while DeVries has carried 61 times for 396 yards and two scores.
“I liked the way we competed last week,” said Singler. “Even when Sheldon got up 21-0, we got a score and got it back to (11 points) in the second quarter, which was good.”