North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
In the 26 years of the Black and Blue Game between the football teams at North Medford and South Medford, no school has ever won six meetings in a row.
That will be the make or break moment Friday night when the Black Tornado and Panthers renew their rivalry at Spiegelberg Stadium and provides the backdrop for what should be an intriguing matchup.
South Medford won a fifth straight over its crosstown foe last season in record-setting fashion with a 56-0 drubbing. That streak equaled the one North Medford put together from 1997-2001, which was snapped by one of the series' best matchups a year later with South's 45-41 victory.
While no one is anticipating the kind of showdown the 2002 game provided, the 27th edition remains pivotal for a Black Tornado program looking for a marquee win to pin its rebuilding hopes upon and for a Panther program striving to solidify its standing in the Southwest Conference.
North Medford (2-5, 1-4 SWC) is coming off its first conference win in two years and will be the designated home team, while South Medford (5-2, 3-2) has won two straight and enters the game in a three-way tie for third place in the SWC. The top four SWC teams receive an automatic spot in the state playoff bracket while the bottom four face play-in games.
In Friday's other SWC affairs, Crater (3-4, 3-2) plays host to winless South Eugene on senior night, Grants Pass (3-4, 3-2) is home against Roseburg (2-5, 1-4) and Sheldon (7-0, 5-0) is at Thurston (4-3, 4-1).
"They're kinda like us, both teams have gotten better at the end of the year," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler in previewing the Black and Blue Game. "I was hoping we would and I know North has after seeing them on tape. They're a team that believes in themselves. The coaching staff has surely gotten through to them and they're buying in and just playing good, fundamental football right now."
While this may serve as the first Black and Blue Game for North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, he's no stranger to rivalry contests in his 40th year as a coach overall and has been impressed with what he's seen thus far from the Panthers.
"They're a really good football team," said Mitchell. "People talk like because they didn't beat Sheldon they're having a down year but that's not the case at all and they're rolling along at 5-2. It's going to take a superb effort on our part but I feel good that the last two weeks we've played well so I would like to think we can go out and make this competitive."
The ability to run the ball — and keep the other from doing so — will be paramount for each team's hopes of victory. Each team has built its offense around being able to run the ball to set up the passing game, with the Panthers averaging 169 of their 281 total yards per game on the ground and the Tornado featuring the SWC's leading rusher in senior Evan Hisey (117 carries for 761 yards and six touchdowns).
The Panthers boast three running backs among the top 10 rushers in the SWC in seniors Ben Casebier (86 carries for 389 yards and three TDs) and Nick Phillips (94 for 380 and three TDs) and junior Christian Bowley (64 for 343 and four TDs).
"They have several running backs that can come at you and they're playing outstanding defense," said Mitchell. "Those are the rare ingredients you need to be successful. They just do the things you need to do to win."
South Medford's defense ranks first in the SWC at a mere 191 yards allowed per game. Only Thurston's Aaron Downes (21 carries for 109 yards) and Roseburg's Jake Heverly (21 for 139) have eclipsed the century mark on the ground against them this season.
"Defense is the strength of our football team, there's no question about that," said Singler. "We feel like our defense has to play well each and every game to have a chance and they've done that."
Hisey will certainly give the Panthers a run for their money with his hard-charging style, all sparked by a recent surge in effective blocking by the Tornado's offensive line.
"The offensive line has really been blocking much better and that's what's making a difference," said Mitchell. "We're really getting a lot more balance now and I think that's going to help us on the offensive side of the ball."
North Medford has enjoyed two of its best offensive outings in the past two weeks, totaling 346 yards last week against South Eugene and 409 a week prior against Thurston. Penalties have proved costly, however, with the Tornado set back by 11 last week in rain-soaked conditions on the road.
North sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler is coming off his best showing, completing 8 of 16 passes for 190 yards, three TDs and, more importantly, no interceptions. Fowler continues to be at his best when given time to throw, something the Tornado's improved running game has been able to offer more and more as the season has progressed.
"Hisey's really been running the ball well, their line has been blocking well and they've got enough skill to keep your interest throwing the ball with Fowler and their younger guys," said Singler. "Physically we have to meet their challenge because they want to get into their run game and they're going to test our manhood out, that's for sure."