Coach Mike Mitchell stopped short of calling it a watershed moment, but there was no denying North Medford's 28-21 Southwest Conference football victory at Grants Pass Friday was a boon to the program.
The Black Tornado got a 5-yard touchdown run from Nick Janakes with 61/2 minutes to play, then held on at Mel Ingram Field for only its second conference triumph in 17 games.
"I feel real good about it and think we're making serious progress," said Mitchell after the conference-opening win raised North Medford's overall record to 2-1. "I'm not going to call it a turnaround here or anything. We actually should have beaten McNary (two weeks ago). We're one catch away from being 3-0. I feel like we're making good progress and feel like we should be competing with teams. We'll see how that holds up as we go."
Other than a win over South Eugene last year, it had been since October 2010 that the Black Tornado recorded an SWC triumph.
North Medford built a 21-7 halftime lead and its spirits were soaring.
"We talked about going out in the second half and getting a stop and scoring," said Mitchell.
But Grants Pass had other plans, as evidenced by Zachary Hannan's 94-yard return for a touchdown with the second-half kickoff.
"Boom, they end up scoring against us," said Mitchell. "We kind of let them back in the game, but the kids hung in there really well."
Grant Pass scored again in the third to tie it at 21-21, with Kirkland Meadows hauling in a 42-yard pass from Javan Appling.
The game turned early in the fourth quarter, when North Medford's Brian Bush intercepted an Appling pass that was tipped — it was one of four Caveman turnovers in the second half.
The Black Tornado took over at the Grants Pass 36-yard line with less than 10 minutes to play, then let quarterback Troy Fowler orchestrate the winning drive.
Fowler had an outstanding game, using both his arm and his legs to keep the chains moving.
He was 14 of 20 passing for 218 yards and wasn't intercepted. The senior also carried eight times for 45 yards.
"Troy was real productive running the ball tonight," said Mitchell. "He broke the pocket and got some good gains. That was a real asset tonight and came at key times."
Janakes opened the winning drive with a 13-yard run. After a couple short runs, Fowler found Tristen Holmes for 18 yards and a first down at the 5.
Janakes took a handoff off right tackle and powered into the end zone. Preston Chachere's kick made it 28-21.
On Grants Pass' ensuing drive, Appling dropped back to pass on a third-and-nine play but Dontae Mims of North Medford forced a fumble that a teammate recovered.
The Black Tornado worked the clock down and was left with a 26-yard field goal attempt with 20 seconds to play. The Cavers swarmed in and blocked Chachere's attempt, taking over at their own 32.
Three plays netted 8 yards, then Edmund Polataivao intercepted Ben Glaeser to end the game.
"It was a real effort game, like the old Medford and Grants Pass games used to be," said Mitchell.
Janakes ran 26 times for 82 yards and opened the scoring with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Todd.
The Black Tornado's other first-half scores were a 30-yard pass from Fowler to Holmes and a 10-yard run by Fowler.
Holmes had three receptions for 78 yards.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org