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...
His helmet acting as an anchor in one hand as he trudged across Spiegelberg Stadium's artificial turf, North Medford junior quarterback Troy Fowler simply didn't have the energy to celebrate Friday night.
And for good reason.
Fowler constructed one of the finest performances the Black Tornado has seen in its proud history, and even that didn't seem like it would be enough on this night against a Crater bunch willing to get into a game of one-upmanship.
The 6-foot, 165-pound Fowler passed for six touchdowns and ran for another but it wasn't until a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by Nick Janakes that North Medford was able to breathe a sigh of relief over a 61-45 Southwest Conference triumph.
"I'm pretty tired," Fowler said after completing 26 of 36 passes for 473 of his team's 566 yards. "I like to have it on my shoulders like that, though, that was fun."
"I don't think I've ever had six touchdown passes," he added. "It feels pretty great. I got one away from my season total (of seven) tonight, so that's pretty good."
Fowler's counterpart at quarterback — Crater senior Ty Fox — also had a busy night behind center to make for a wild back-and-forth shootout between the familiar foes.
Fox completed 26 of 45 passes for 519 of his team's 629 yards. The 6-2, 215-pounder passed for four TDs and ran for another but ultimately fell short in his bid to guide the Comets to their first win of the season.
"Even though we lost it was still a heck of a game," said Fox, who also led his team with 59 yards rushing. "It was fun to play in. This is why you play the game, for games like this. Even though we didn't come out on top, there's still a lot of positives to look at. We're a good team and we don't get down on each other. We're going to work on some things and we're going to get this done."
All told, the teams combined for 1,195 yards of total offense. That total was actually limited by the considerable field position gained from long kickoff returns.
"It was a big-play night all the way around," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team improved to 4-1 overall and 3-0 in SWC play. "I'd say 106 points is a lot of points, no matter which side you're on."
Fowler said his team was out to prove that last week's upset of perennial power Sheldon was no fluke, and the offense certainly did its part in a game that played out more like an Xbox challenge than a prep confrontation.
Fowler connected with Jared Evans on touchdown passes of 18 and 35 yards and to Eugene Ellis on TD strikes of 73 and 23 yards to help each go over the century mark in receiving yards. Evans finished with eight catches for 126 yards while Ellis pulled in six for 149.
Janakes also made an impressive one-handed grab for a 42-yard touchdown and finished with four catches for 70 yards, while Will Spence added an 8-yard TD reception and Tristen Holmes finished with 89 yards on his four catches.
"They have a really good front seven or eight and they stuffed the run really good," said Fowler, "but our athletes at wide receiver were better than theirs tonight. We just went out and passed the ball and it seemed like it worked out."
"I've got some pretty big guys out there at wide receiver and they all can jump up and get it," he added. "I trust them a lot through all the work we've done in the offseason. I just throw it up to them and hope they make a play."
Both teams actually came into the contest believing their perimeter players were better than the others, and that definitely proved to be the case when it came to offensive execution. Only four of 11 second-half drives did not result in a touchdown, and two of those included a Janakes interception that put North in scoring position and set up its final drive to run out the clock.
"It was a really good job by North, they executed really well in the passing game and made some great individual plays," said Crater head coach John Beck, whose team is 0-5 overall and 0-3 in league. "My hat's off to them. They've got it rolling and are doing a super job with their kids."
"I really thought our offensive staff did a fantastic job with the game plan and the kids really executed it well," added the ex-Tornado coach. "I thought we looked really good on offense. If our defense and special teams would've performed a lot better we would have had a little better chance, but part of that, too, is the opponent."
Fox got Crater off to a solid start with a 38-yard TD pass to Dylan Morgan to open the scoring and he added scoring strikes to Dallin George (36 yards) and Matt Dent (14 yards) in a second-quarter spree that saw the teams combine for 39 points.
George finished with six catches for 138 yards, while Dent pulled in three for 117 to pace the Comets.
The Comets used 7-yard runs to pay dirt by Davey McCollum and Fox to offset a 2-yard scoring run by Janakes and give Crater a 38-35 lead heading to the fourth quarter.
But Evans' 35-yard grab on the first play of the final quarter put North Medford up to stay, and the Black Tornado piled it on from there with consecutive TDs by Spence and Fowler for a 54-38 advantage. The latter came after Janakes deflected and then pulled in a pass by Fox, and the junior linebacker did it again on the next series when he stepped in front of another throw and returned it 67 yards for a score.
Fox's 9-yard TD to Morgan capped the scoring with 2:35 to play.
"It was just one of those days," said Fox. "The offenses on both sides of the field were actually doing really good. The defense has some things to work on but we're good, we'll get it done."
The feeling was more upbeat in North's locker room.
"We have some things to fix but we're starting to feel we might make a run here and be OK," said Mitchell. "Thurston's going to be a challenge, of course, next week, so we'll see what happens. We're going to regroup, but fortunately we can do it on a game where we score 61 to their 45, so that's OK."