CORVALLIS — When the final buzzer sounded, all that was left for the South Medford senior class to do was hug and cry.
They’d already accomplished everything else.
The most decorated class in the history of South Medford football, which led the Panthers to the school’s first football semifinal and championship appearances, ended their careers with a narrow loss to Clackamas, 31-30 at Reser Stadium on Saturday.
“It should hurt, because you care so much,” coach Bill Singler told his players after the game.
He told them not to wallow in sorrow, but to hang onto the friendships they’ve formed. And to use the experience to make them more resilient.
All season, the South Medford community has rallied around the Panthers’ success. And, despite a three-and-a-half-hour drive in rainy conditions, the South Medford faithful showed up for their Panthers one last time.
“We love them so much and we just wish we could’ve got something more for them. I love them and I love being a Panther,” quarterback Robbie Patterson said, fighting tears.
Defensive back Josiah Johnson went around to his teammates after the loss, saying: “Thank you for all the hard work. Thank you for having my back. Thank you for the great season.”
Clackamas won on a 37-yard field goal by Jeffrey Nelson with three seconds left — the only score of the fourth quarter — to conclude a tense final frame.
The Panthers clung to a 30-28 lead for the entire fourth quarter. With 4:06 remaining, they stopped Clackamas on a 4th-and-2 and took over on downs. Things looked good for the Panthers.
When Robbie Patterson scrambled in the backfield from one sideline to another for an eight-yard gain, and then converted a 4th-and-1 with 2:35 left, things looked really good for the Panthers.
But an out-of-character fumble by South Medford standout running back Jaylin Parnell — his second of the game — gave the Cavaliers the ball on their 21-yard line with 1:39 to play. They eventually turned that into three points.
“It’s a darn shame the fumble had to occur,” Singler said. “He’s such a tremendous player.”
South Medford led for 59 minutes and 57 seconds of the game. But, ultimately, Clackamas came out on top.
“I’m just gonna miss it,” Johnson said.
Although full of sorrow and, in some cases, nearly inconsolable, the Panthers also showed pride in their seniors and their school.
Heavily recruited wide receiver Chase Cota expressed his love for the hard-working team.
“That’s the only reason we got this far,” Cota said. “We weren’t the most talented, or big group. We just had a lot of heart, so it was sweet.”
“This group of guys, they’re my family. I’ve been playing with most of them since I was in sixth grade,” wide receiver Jaalen Owens said.
Owens led the way in the first half for the Panthers, who were up 24-14 at the break. He scored the Panthers’ first 17 points (a field goal, two receiving touchdowns and two extra points) before being sidelined with a back injury suffered in the semifinal last week.
The Panthers might have missed his playmaking ability, but they also missed his leg. Backup kicker Peyton Shipley went 1 for 2 on PATs after Owens’ injury, which left the door open for Clackamas. Previous to the game, he had made only five extra points.
South Medford entered the contest having lost only three fumbles all year, but the normally sure-handed Parnell coughed it up twice to the Cavaliers. The last one was especially ill-timed.
“We didn’t lose because of one fumble,” Singler said.
“Unfortunate things happen,” Patterson said. “Anyone could’ve recovered it, but it just didn’t so happen to go that way. It’s just tough.”
Patterson finished his high school career with a splendid game. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 291 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Twice, he completed perfect passes over the Cavaliers secondary: once to Owens for a 37-yard score and then to Cota for a 61-yard pass. That one set up a Patterson five-yard touchdown run.
When the South Medford defense forced a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter, Patterson was under the trainer’s tent, getting his left ankle taped. But, he hurried out to the field and looked uninhibited running the ball four consecutive times before the pivotal turnover.
“Robbie puts his heart out every play in every game in every sport he plays. I’ll always cherish him. He’s one of the best athletes to ever come through South,” Owens said.
Owens finished with five catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half. Cota caught five passes for 90 yards, and Parnell added 54 yards rushing and 66 yards receiving, plus a touchdown. On the touchdown, he showed just how tough he is to tackle, running straight through a Clackamas defender to turn a screen pass into a 39-yard score.
Evan Dallas and Trent Snyder had 15 tackles each, and Brandon Ditty was credited with 1.5 sacks.
According to Singler, the game was a battle between the best two teams in the state. And it was a tremendous ballgame.
“Nobody gave it to anybody,” Singler said. “Nobody lost it. Somebody had to win in the end and that’s what happened. Well-played game. Hard-fought game. You wish nobody had to lose this game. But, in sports, somebody wins and somebody loses. But, we’re not losers.”
Before the season, Singler was cautiously optimistic about his talented, experienced football team.
“History says we’re not gonna win the state championship,” he said in August.
Well, history be darned. For the first time, the Panthers advanced past the state quarterfinals and all the way to the title game. They were oh-so-close to making history one last time.
“Fate wasn’t with it,” Singler said.