North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell and his Black Tornado football team haven't been shy about pointing to the play-in round as their ultimate proving ground this season.
In his first year at the helm, Mitchell has tried to develop the team on a step-by-step basis, with a final goal of earning a play-in win at the conclusion of the season.
While not all has gone to script, sometimes it's been two steps forward and two steps back, the time has finally come for the Black Tornado to see how far it's come from a season-opening comeback win over McNary.
North Medford (2-7) opens the Class 6A play-in round at 7 p.m. on Friday at Clackamas (4-5).
"It's a whole new deal now and I think the kids are excited," said Mitchell. "We're glad that we get a chance to go on and we're going to go up there and we're going to give it our best shot and see if we can compete with them."
The two teams last met in 2010, twice actually. North Medford beat Clackamas 27-14 in the season opener and then again 17-7 in the play-in round during a season that saw the Cavaliers go 0-10.
Neither program is remotely the same from those last meetings, with Clackamas gradually building back toward respectability while North Medford endured its own winless campaign last year and is trying to follow suit with its own rebuilding process.
"They're a good team," Mitchell said of the Cavaliers, who finished fourth in the Three Rivers League and has the fourth-best power ranking of the play-in teams. "They're big and they kinda come right at you."
Clackamas features one of the top running backs in the state in junior Dan Sherrell, who ranks fourth in Oregon with 1,662 yards and 23 touchdowns on 248 carries. Against West Linn, the 5-foot-8, 165-pounder raced to 261 yards and six TDs in a 56-49 victory.
"We have to take him away," said Mitchell. "He's a good back when you watch him on film."
Slowing Sherrell may be easier said than done, and it also won't be the only challenge facing North Medford. Clackamas also features a steady passing threat with junior quarterback Doonie Johnson, who has six TD runs but is primarily a dropback passer. Johnson has completed 139 of 241 passes for 1,494 yards and 11 TDs with seven interceptions.
Senior Erick Douglas is the Cavaliers main target with 53 receptions for 583 yards, while 6-4 junior target Brody Haehlen provides a main red zone option with his five TDs in 28 catches.
Clackamas averages 35.6 points and 311.5 yards per game, while the defense is led by senior lineman Jonathon Kenion (seven sacks) and junior linebacker Zach Farnes (12.7 tackles per game).
Seven of the Cavaliers' games this season have been settled by nine points or less, with Clackamas winning three of those contests. Clackamas has lost three straight entering the playoffs, the last two by a touchdown against Oregon City and Canby.
North Medford will look to counter the Cavaliers' attack with the punishing running style of senior Evan Hisey and sophomore Nick Janakes. Hisey led the Southwest Conference with 961 yards rushing on 173 carries, while Janakes has averaged 5.6 yards per carry at fullback.
The Black Tornado played without sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler in last week's regular-season finale at Roseburg and may very well be without his services again on Friday. Fowler suffered a concussion two weeks ago in a loss to South Medford but has been going through all the protocol to get back on the field this week. His playing status will be determined closer to game day should he receive clearance from his doctor and North Medford trainer Mike Stevenson.
"I'm talking to him every day about where he's at but we're not going to do anything stupid," said Mitchell. "We're going to really take a good look at that. It might even be what kind of game it is and what kind of pressure they put on us that would make me make a decision. It could be where we don't even start him and kind of play it by ear as to what we're seeing."
Junior Micah Brown and senior Jordan Towe took over for Fowler last week in Roseburg, each seeing reasonable results despite limited playing time at the position this year. Brown ran for 25 yards and passed for 44 more, while Towe completed 3 of 4 passes for 37 yards in the 42-8 loss.
"Last week quarterback wasn't our problem, it was five fumbles," said Mitchell.
In Friday's other play-in games involving SWC teams, Grants Pass is at McNary, Roseburg is host to North Salem and South Eugene at Beaverton.
EAGLE POINT AT CRESCENT VALLEY — Eighth-ranked Crescent Valley (6-3) found itself on the wrong side of the bubble for automatic bids to the 5A state playoffs that went to the top eight teams in the power rankings.
The Raiders' only losses in Oregon have come against No. 2 Silverton and No. 4 West Albany and they feature good size and quality skill players. Quarterback Tanner Sanders (6-5, 195) has completed 100 of 178 passes for 1,860 yards with 14 TDs and seven interceptions. The junior has also run for 319 yards and three TDs on 39 carries.
Chase McFadden (29 catches for 480 yards, three TDs), Trevor Jennsen (20 for 352, four TDs) and Jared Baumgartner (12 for 330, three TDs) are potent perimeter threats, while Nick Pozzesi is the Raiders' chief running option with 191 carries for 966 yards and 10 TDs.
Eagle Point (5-4) averages almost 358 yards and 31 points per game, relying mostly on a ground game that features seniors Jakob Combs (134 carries for 942 yards, 10 TDs) and Caleb Ash (94 for 595, 10 TDs). Quarterback Jorge Quintero has done well to guide the Eagles, with Carlos Flores (18 catches for 279 yards, four TDs) and Kyle Zerger (20 for 200) powering the air assault.
CORVALLIS AT ASHLAND — Corvallis opened the season on a good note with wins over Willamette and Woodburn and a two-point loss to Springfield but enters the play-in round on a four-game losing streak.
The Spartans (3-6) are led by quarterback Matherin Langley, who has completed 108 of 197 passes for 1,509 yards with 19 TDs and 10 interceptions. Langley has also run for 528 yards and 10 TDs on a team-high 110 carries. His top receivers have been Andrew Laney (32 catches for 391 yards, nine TDs) and Cole Garrett (24 for 445, four TDs).
Ashland (6-3) has picked up steam with four straight wins and is averaging nearly 388 yards and 31 points per game. Connor Kaegi and Danial White have each thrown for more than 1,000 yards and combined for 15 TDs and seven interceptions while sharing duties at quarterback.
RJ Atteberry has led a deep receiving corps with 40 catches for 697 yards and nine TDs. Quaid Walters (37 catches for 573 yards, two TDs) and Carter Glick (26 for 317, two TDs) also spark the Grizzlies with their downfield ability.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry