Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Dealing with adversity has not really been an issue thus far for North Medford's football team, but now the Black Tornado faces a new dilemma: Learning how to deal with prosperity.
Fresh off what it hopes is a program-changing victory over a Sheldon team that has won the last four Southwest Conference championships, North Medford will look to remain humble and hungry Friday night when it plays host to Crater at Spiegelberg Stadium.
"I think the kids right now are really excited," said second-year Black Tornado head coach Mike Mitchell, "but what we need to be excited about is playing Crater."
North Medford (3-1, 2-0 SWC) has already secured more wins than in the previous two years combined when it went 2-18, and is on pace for its first winning season since 2005. But, as Mitchell points out, the Tornado is far from out of the woods and still needs to continue to "saw wood" so last week's 21-17 comeback victory doesn't go for naught.
"This team so far has been doing a really good job of having adversity and overcoming it," said Mitchell. "We're not going to change our theory. We're trying to improve every time we step out on the football field, and so far we've done that except in one practice."
In Friday's other Southwest Conference action, South Medford is at seventh-ranked Sheldon, Grants Pass plays host to Thurston and South Eugene is at No. 5 Roseburg.
At the 5A level, a marquee matchup will take place in Ashland on Friday when the fourth-ranked Grizzlies play host to No. 5 Springfield in Midwestern League play, while Eagle Point plays host to North Eugene.
While Mitchell and company earned the right to celebrate snapping Sheldon's 27-game conference winning streak, they also were given their due from head coaches John Beck (Crater) and Bill Singler (South Medford), who each noted how well the Black Tornado played against the Irish.
Beck was North Medford's head coach from 2001-03, following three years as a top assistant for Rod Rumrey, before moving to Crater. Despite initial friction from both sides following that switch, time has healed all wounds and Beck was overflowing with praise for the job being done by Mitchell and his staff, as well as the support they have received from the school's administration.
"I was happy for those guys," Beck said of the Tornado's upset victory. "That was a good win and good for their program and good for their kids, so that was real nice to see."
Beck said the win only confirms what he has been saying all summer about the Black Tornado.
"I knew North was going to be a lot better," he said. "They've been better every week since the first week."
And if the winless Comets (0-4, 0-2) are hoping to get lost in all the excitement at North Medford, that's certainly not what Mitchell has been preaching since late Friday night.
"They're probably the best 0-4 team you're ever going to see," said the coach. "They're really exciting with what they do and they play hard. They're trying to get this thing turned around and they're dangerous for us right now. They've had some turnover problems but one night they won't and they'll be a problem for anyone."
Crater ranks last in the SWC in turnover ratio at minus-10 and that has created most of the Comets' issues thus far. It won't get any easier on Friday against a Black Tornado squad that has 12 takeaways under its belt, including four last week, and sports a defense that's allowing only 275 yards and 18 points per game.
"We've been close in every single ballgame, we're just not finishing," said Beck. "To be in every single game and have opportunities to win, even when we weren't playing well, that's a frustrating thing. We're good enough where if we play consistently we can beat quite a lot of teams but when we don't, we can also lose to quite a lot of teams."
The Comets unveiled a more balanced attack last week, spurred on by Grants Pass' defensive scheme that put only five in the box, with senior Davey McCollum and Carlos Higuera joining quarterback Ty Fox in gaining positive yardage on the ground. Still, Crater's pass-to-run ratio is 3-to-1 thus far, with Fox (70-for-134 for 1,017 yards, seven TDs and seven interceptions) relying heavily on perimeter threats Dallin George and Kory Bennett.
Nick Janakes continues to set the tone for North Medford with his work at running back, where he stands second in the SWC with 465 yards and six scores on 86 carries, but Troy Fowler's play at quarterback has been huge. The junior has completed 55 of 100 passes for 816 yards, seven TDs and three interceptions, and his decision-making in shotgun formation has been pivotal as he doles the ball out to leading receivers Jared Evans, Tristen Holmes and Eugene Ellis.
"I think Troy Fowler's executing great, he's the key," said Beck. "Troy's one of my favorite kids and he's just doing a super job of executing their offense and making good throws and good decisions. He's accurate and quick and keeps things alive with his feet."
North Medford did lose a key figure last week when linebacker Edmund Polataivao injured knee ligaments on a non-contact situation covering a punt. The Tornado is still awaiting MRI results to know the full extent of the junior's injury.
SOUTH MEDFORD AT SHELDON — Prior to last Friday's contest, Sheldon's last loss in SWC play came in 2008 against South Medford in a battle that allowed the Panthers to become the only other league team to claim the conference title since the SWC was formed in 2006.
Each team comes into this year's contest tied for third in the SWC standings at 1-1, with only one game separating Sheldon (2-2) and South Medford (1-3) in overall record. North Medford's upset of the Irish likely makes matters more challenging for the Panthers, who will look to become the first SWC team to win on Sheldon's home turf in Eugene.
"We'll surely see a different team than North saw, there's no question about that," said Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "North had the perfect storm going for them. I've never seen a Sheldon team turn the ball over like they did in that game. They were doing things uncharacteristically that you don't see a Sheldon team do and North, to their credit, capitalized on those things. And once they got momentum, they began to believe they could do it and really made it happen."
The injury-riddled Panthers appear to be getting into gear offensively, with Josh Hall and Anthony Gomez churning out steady yardage on the ground. Quarterback Craig Contreras has also developed good rapport with leading receivers Mark Winans (six TDs on seven receptions) and Josh Baugh (15 catches for 216 yards and one TD), who has stepped up in the wake of a broken hand suffered by Brady Breeze.
While South Medford did without another key starter last week when senior punter/placekicker Riley Williams was lost due to a meniscus injury, the Panthers did get back Kyle Eli (senior lineman) and Breeze (sophomore safety) to give them a boost. The defense also made strides behind the play of Makai Manuwai on the line, while Contreras boomed a pair of punts to move his season average to 40 yards per kick and Tristan Watson converted two extra-point attempts.
Sheldon lost standout athlete Yadie Dunmore in the second quarter last week due to a calf injury and his status is unknown for Friday. The Irish have committed 11 turnovers thus far but offset that with 10 takeaways.
Joseph Kuehn leads the SWC with 1,076 yards passing after completing 79 of 111 attempts, largely on quick screens to the perimeter or slants and the occasional double-move from a deep receiving corps led by Mitchell Herbert and Kellen Strahm.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry