Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
A lot of optimism, a little good fortune and an infinite amount of trust.
With those three elements, North Medford sent shockwaves through the prep football scene Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium.
Black Tornado junior receiver Tristen Holmes got behind his defender and quarterback Troy Fowler hit him in stride deep down the sideline for a go-ahead 65-yard touchdown with 41 seconds to go to vault North Medford to a stunning 21-17 upset of No. 3 Sheldon on Friday.
Once a last-gasp 38-yard heave to the end zone by Sheldon quarterback Joseph Kuehn was turned away as time expired, pandemonium struck Spiegelberg Stadium as fans and players alike stormed the field in celebration.
"I honestly feel like I'm in a dream right now, I can't believe it," Fowler said surrounded by the post-game hysteria. "But we've got to get back to work on Sunday and focus toward Crater. We need to not act like this is the Super Bowl, even though it feels like it. We just need to go back and get to work because this one's over now."
Fowler's balance of excitement and expectation was echoed throughout the Black Tornado locker room, where players have found the fortitude to believe in themselves even when faced with long odds like the ones brought forth by the defending Class 6A state champions.
"I knew that we had it in us," said Holmes, who had two catches for 78 yards. "We just came out and executed and got the win out of it."
Fowler passed for a pair of touchdowns in the final 6 1/2 minutes of the game to help North Medford erase a 17-7 deficit and post its first-ever Southwest Conference victory over the visiting Irish.
The loss was only the third in SWC history for Sheldon, which dropped a pair of games in 2008 to Grants Pass and South Medford but has otherwise cruised through the conference. The Irish (2-2, 1-1 SWC) had won 29 straight SWC games entering Friday's contest, while the Black Tornado (3-1, 2-0) hadn't beaten another conference foe beyond South Eugene since 2010 until last week's win at Grants Pass.
"I was real happy with how we played," said second-year Tornado head coach Mike Mitchell. "I felt it was a solid, good win. There was nothing flaky about it."
North Medford forced four first-half turnovers by Sheldon and outgained the Irish 407 yards to 319 overall in a game that was tied 7-all at intermission thanks to a determined 1-yard effort by Nick Janakes on the final play.
Prior to Janakes' touchdown, North Medford had dominated possession of the ball in the first half but had nothing to show for it thanks to a blocked field goal and a pair of red-zone defensive stands by Sheldon.
"These guys have been playing pretty resilient and they came back and got it," said Mitchell. "I think it was real important to get that one before the half because this kind of game was going to be a dogfight, no matter how we got out of it."
While that scoring play sent the Black Tornado into the locker room on a high note, Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson said it was obvious his team was playing with fire on Friday.
"We talked about it all week that they would hang with us as long as we allowed them to," said Johnson. "Us turning the ball over, it's been kind of our Achilles' heel the whole year. We turned it over four times in the first half, and we're not good enough to turn the ball over that many times and beat a team like North Medford. They were spunky and they made plays. I tip my cap to them, I really do, they did a great job."
Midway through the fourth quarter, North Medford was able to convert a fourth-and-10 play with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Fowler to Janakes with 6:19 to go that trimmed Sheldon's lead to 17-14.
The Irish returned the kickoff to the North Medford 47 but eventually turned the ball over on downs when Mitchell Herbert was hit by sophomore linebacker Will Spence as he attempted a fourth-and-8 pass.
Needing to go 80 yards with only 1:23 on the clock, the Black Tornado failed to advance from the 20-yard line on its first three attempts before Fowler found Janakes over the middle for a 15-yard gain on fourth down. Janakes finished with 90 yards rushing on 21 carries and five receptions for 84 yards.
On the next play, Holmes streaked down the right sideline and the 165-pound Fowler put just about everything he had into a throw that fell right into his hands over cornerback Brandon Williams. Holmes then raced into the end zone to give North Medford its first and only lead of the game.
"Troy trusted to get the ball out to me and he threw it up perfectly," said Holmes. "The line had good protection and I just caught it and made a touchdown. We did what we had to do to win and it just feels great."
The call was Fowler's to make in the huddle, as is the case when North's in shotgun formation, and he didn't hesitate to look Holmes' direction.
"I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to catch that," said Fowler, who completed 16 of 35 passes for 305 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. "We've worked on it so many times, and one-on-one I'll take him over anyone."
While the play sent North Medford's sideline and home fans into a frenzy, it left Sheldon stunned on the other side of the field.
"I really don't know what to say," said Johnson. "We were in cover three and our corners' job is to stay on top of their receiver and they just made a great play."
The Irish managed to move the ball down to the Black Tornado 38 with 6.9 seconds to play but Kuehn's final pass attempt into the end zone failed to find a target.
Herbert scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to open the second quarter. Kellen Strahm's 53-yard TD reception from Kuehn early in the third quarter appeared to spark the Irish but little came of that afterwards as Sheldon was only able to add a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter for its 17-7 lead.
Kuehn finished 17-for-30 passing for 208 yards and two interceptions by Holmes and Micah Brown, and the Irish lost a pair of fumbles in the first half. Recovering the ball for the Tornado were Skyler Black and Eugene Ellis, who also had a key third-down reception on North's first scoring drive of the fourth quarter.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry