HILLSBORO — South Medford put itself in prime position for another historic feat through three quarters against Lake Oswego, and senior standout Jaalen Owens made sure that effort wasn’t in vain when everything tightened in the fourth quarter Friday at Hillsboro Stadium
The fifth-seeded Panthers scored the first 21 points of the Class 6A football state semifinal against the No. 1 Lakers but found themselves clinging to a 28-21 lead with seven minutes remaining and the ball in the hands of one of the state’s most prolific offensive attacks.
Then came a little serendipity, courtesy of Owens, in a true testament to why you never give up on a play.
The senior cornerback stripped the ball away from Lake Oswego receiver Kameron Harvey following a short reception and deftly scooped up the loose ball and returned it 17 yards to pay dirt to kick-start another 21-point surge by South Medford that ultimately clinched a 49-27 triumph.
“That was a big momentum changer and a big part of what got us back in the game,” South Medford senior Robbie Patterson said of the fumble return. “Props to J.O. Big players make big plays when the game’s on the line and that’s what he did.”
Patterson wasn’t too shabby himself in guiding the Panthers to their first semifinal victory and first berth in the state championship game at 12:30 p.m. next Saturday at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns and ran 10 times for 90 yards and one score.
South Medford (12-1) will next play second-seeded Clackamas (13-0), which routed No. 6 Tigard 52-7 in Friday’s other semifinal to reach its first championship.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it feels amazing,” said Owens, who also caught a 9-yard TD pass in the second quarter and made all seven extra-point kicks. “I can’t wait until this next game.”
To say this moment has been a long time coming for South Medford would be an understatement. Until this season, the Panthers hadn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals since the school was formed in 1986.
“All year we knew that we had something, we just had to put the pieces together,” said Patterson. “The whole team has just bought in. We’re climbing the mountain and we’re almost there. We’ve got one more game and we’ll see how it goes.”
There seemed to be no denying South Medford early on against the Three Rivers League co-champion Lakers. After neither team could muster a first down on their first drive, the Panthers quickly marched 55 yards in five plays to strike first on a 27-yard connection from Patterson to senior Jaylin Parnell, who totaled three scores.
A critical fourth-down sack by senior linebacker Evan Dallas halted a promising drive by the Lakers and then Patterson remained hot, finding Chase Cota for a pair of key receptions before Owens shook free for his 9-yard score.
The score ballooned to 21-0 after the Panthers forced a three-and-out and responded with a 58-yard drive highlighted by Patterson’s 26-yard run. Parnell then bulled his way to the end zone for the first of two 2-yard TD runs.
“We just wanted to come out and play like we have nothing to lose because we didn’t,” said Patterson. “They had all the pressure on them and we had none on us, and we just came out like we have all year and performed to the best of our abilities. I’m just so proud of our team. I couldn’t think of a better way to come out and get a win up here like we did.”
A 9-yard scoring strike with 41 seconds left in the first half from Oregon State-bound senior quarterback Jake Dukart to Casey Filkins gave Lake Oswego some hope heading into halftime.
Standout defensive plays by Michael Cormier, Parnell and Josiah Johnson thwarted the Lakers’ scoring bid to start the third quarter, and the Panthers put themselves seemingly in the driver’s seat with another Parnell score for a 28-7 bulge with 4:45 to go in the third quarter.
What followed was the Lakers’ last stand as they responded with a pair of scores to close within 28-21 before getting the ball back on the Lake Oswego 26-yard line with 7:10 remaining.
South Medford needed a big play, and Owens was dialed in to help provide it.
“(Parnell) was there and he wrapped (Harvey) up and all I saw was the ball,” said Owens. “I just poked it right out and then I turned around and I saw it was still in the air and I just scooped and scored. All I had to do was run through the ball and when I looked behind me I was like, ‘Oh, they’re coming,’ so I just ran as hard as I could to the end zone.”
The loose ball seemed to hover in the air for an eternity, and it was divine intervention that when it finally reached the turf it stayed in bounds to give Owens an opportunity.
“You have to have a little luck to go this far and we haven’t had luck yet,” said Panthers head coach Bill Singler. “We’ve beaten teams pretty soundly the last few weeks and we really haven’t had to rely on lady luck. We get that strip and the ball luckily just kind of bounces right into his hands. You need those kind of things to win a game like this because they were trying to seize the momentum back, and that kept us enough ahead with that big play.”
Everything snowballed from there for the Lakers, with South Medford holding on four downs after pass breakups by Nate Eli and Cota and a sack by Trent Snyder. Needing to gain only 16 yards to score, the Panthers accomplished that in three plays when Patterson found Trent DeBoer for a 7-yard score.
Shortly thereafter, Patterson removed all doubt in the outcome with a 45-yard sprint to the end zone to make it 49-21 with 1:52 to play.
“They did a great job,” said Lake Oswego head coach Steve Coury of the Panthers. “They’re a good football team, we knew that. They’re explosive with some big-time players on the outside. I thought we could match up a little bit with them, but the start was definitely something that put us back on our heels and, of course, the fumble was big.”
As was South Medford’s senior-driven will to win on this chilly night.
“Football’s a battle,” said Singler. “Sometimes the offense is doing their job, sometimes it’s the defense and sometimes it’s the special teams. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep persevering, and I think we did tonight.”
SOUTH MEDFORD 49, LAKE OSWEGO 27
At Hillsboro Stadium
SM — Parnell 27 pass from Patterson (Owens kick)
SM — Owens 9 pass from Patterson (Owens kick)
SM — Parnell 2 run (Owens kick)
LO — Filkins 9 pass from Dukart (Bazant kick)
SM — Parnell 2 run (Owens kick)
LO — Bracken 5 run (Bazant kick)
LO — Newlin 37 pass from Dukart (Bazant kick)
SM — Owens 17 fumble return (Owens kick)
SM — DeBoer 7 pass from Patterson (Owens kick)
SM — Patterson 45 run (Owens kick)
LO — Taylor 12 pass from Dukart (Owens kick)
South Medford — Parnell 18-79, Patterson 10-90, Snyder 1-8, Cota 1-2, Butler 1-1, Team 1-(-2).
Lake Oswego — Bracken 13-98, Dukart 11-25, Bassett 6-22.
South Medford — Patterson 15-20-0 196.
Lake Oswego — Dukart 27-48-0 275.
South Medford — Parnell 4-61, Cota 3-49, Owens 3-43, DeBoer 3-20, Johnson 1-18, Shipley 1-5.
Lake Oswego — Filkins 9-101, Harvey 6-41, Newlin 5-83, Taylor 3-34, Bracken 2-12, Bassett 2-4.
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry