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Only a worst-case scenario could keep North Medford's football program from its first winning season since 2005, and the eighth-ranked Black Tornado could erase all doubts tonight at Spiegelberg Stadium.
Holding a 5-1 overall record, North Medford has already equaled its most wins since 2010 and, for the first time, stands alone atop the Southwest Conference standings. With three regular season games and at least one playoff game to go, a win against visiting South Eugene at 7 tonight would finally scratch the Tornado's eight-year itch.
"We've won five in a row here so that part I think we're past," North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell said of focus on a winning season. "They're starting to think playoffs and all this but we're trying to talk about South Eugene. We think they're a pretty good team."
It would be hard to blame Black Tornado players from getting excited about what's to come. Last week's late-game heroics allowed North to move to 4-0 in SWC play and all but assured a top-four finish and automatic bid to the Class 6A state playoffs.
With its final three games at Spiegelberg, North is in the driver's seat in pursuit of its first conference title since 2005, when it went 8-4 and advanced to the state quarterfinals.
"I think that's a tremendous advantage," said Mitchell. "It's harder to win on the road than it is at home. And I think, in our case, we're kind of an Astroturf conference and when we got on grass we were slipping and sliding last week."
In tonight's other SWC matchups, Crater plays host to Thurston, South Medford is at Grants Pass and No. 6 Sheldon faces No. 10 Roseburg in Eugene.
In 5A nonconference action, third-ranked and unbeaten Ashland is at home against Sutherlin.
South Eugene is the one team North Medford has enjoyed consistent success against since the SWC was formed in 2006, but the return of head coach Chris Miller has the Axemen playing more competitively.
"They pose a lot of problems and they're playing way better than they did last year," said Mitchell. "(Miller) has come in and done a great job of getting them organized."
Quarterback Ray Roundtree has completed 92 of 166 passes for 1,002 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. South Eugene (2-4, 0-4 SWC) has been given a boost in the run game by Quinn Cota (69 carries for 243 yards and three TDs) while Connor Still supplies a big target on the perimeter with 24 catches for 282 yards and two scores.
The Axemen also rank toward the middle of the pack in the SWC with 367 yards allowed per game.
One thing is for sure, the Tornado has had an earful this week over allowing Thurston back into the game last week after taking a 22-point advantage.
"Last week was a good lesson for us," said Mitchell. "We had total domination going last week. It was 32-10 and if somebody bet you it would end up being a close game at that point you'd have taken that bet in a heartbeat. But we lost momentum and we didn't get it back. We hung on instead of getting momentum back. I think they learned how important momentum is in that game and hopefully that's the lesson we take from that one."
North Medford junior Troy Fowler continued his maturation at quarterback, running for three TDs and passing for two others in the 38-32 win. It was Fowler's third rushing TD that rescued the Tornado from potential overtime when he raced to the end zone with 13 seconds to play for the go-ahead score.
Through six weeks, Fowler has thrown for 1,511 yards and 15 touchdowns on 99-for-168 passing. He's also the team's second-leading rusher at 180 yards and five TDs on 38 carries.
Nick Janakes continues to pace the team with 645 yards rushing — second in the SWC — on 125 carries with seven TDs, while Jared Evans is fifth in the league in receiving yards with 429 on 26 receptions.
North Medford's defense has been susceptible in recent weeks but still is third in the conference at 350 yards allowed per game.
"I think we're a better defensive team than I think we've played in two weeks," said Mitchell. "The night we played Sheldon, we played great defense against the run and pass and that's what we have to do again is get consistent and not give up any big plays. It's all there, we just have to do it."
Helping that cause should be the return of all-conference linebacker Edmund Polataivao, who tweaked his knee and ankle in the Sheldon win but is expected to return tonight.
THURSTON AT CRATER — Each week it seems like something has to give for Crater and yet each week the Comets find themselves on the short end of the scoreboard. Crater (0-6, 0-4) will look to break its winless streak tonight by riding the strong arm of Ty Fox, who leads the state in passing with 1,843 yards. He's completed 126 of 235 passes with 13 touchdowns but nine interceptions.
Thurston (1-5, 1-3) is more than willing to get into an offensive showdown, especially with the return from an MCL sprain by tailback Roy Jackson and the potential return of wideout Carson Cook, who was leading the SWC in receiving yards before his own MCL sprain against Roseburg.
Even missing one game, the shifty Jackson stands third in the SWC with 642 yards rushing and nine TDs on 93 carries. Cook has 24 catches for 415 yards and four scores from quarterback Brendin Quinn, who is a dual-threat weapon. Quinn has completed 114 of 182 passes for 1,366 yards, 11 TDs and seven interceptions.
Neither team has really been able to stop anyone on defense thus far, with Crater allowing 411 yards and 40 points per game while Thurston ranks last in the SWC at 426 yards allowed against 38 points per game.
The Comets will answer with the SWC's leading receiving threats in Kory Bennett (32 catches for 529 yards and five TDs) and Dallin George (41 catches for 516 yards) but will also need consistent production from running backs Carlos Higuera and Davey McCollum to keep Fox from being under siege.
SOUTH MEDFORD AT GRANTS PASS — While the series appears lopsided in recent years — South Medford has won 12 of the past 13 against Grants Pass — each year has provided its own challenges, and this year is no different.
Grants Pass enters with a 4-2 overall and 3-1 SWC record after winning three straight games following a 28-21 loss to North Medford.
"We know we have our hands full over there because their crowd is going to be loud and it's going to be full because it's a Medford team coming over there," said Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "They know they have a good season going and they certainly want to beat us."
Quarterback Javan Appling controls the no-huddle system in GP and has passed for 842 yards and run for 141 more. His top options include running backs Zac Hannan (51 carries for 584 yards and five TDs), Ben Dean (70 carries for 372 yards and four TDs) and Kirkland Meadows (21 catches for 287 yards and three scores).
"When you watch their backs get the ball, both (Dean and Hannan) can turn the corner and take it the distance," said Singler. "It's going to be a tough job for us to hold them down because they're used to moving the football. I think our best recipe would be to keep them off the field."
Spearheaded by the play of defensive lineman Jordan Thatcher, the Cavemen have limited teams to 344 yards per game — second in the SWC — but have been plagued by turnovers (16) at key junctures.
South Medford's offense received a boost last week with the return of tailback Christian Bowley — who ran for 162 yards against Roseburg — to add to an already strong effort thus far by fullback Anthony Gomez and tailback Josh Hall.
Craig Contreras was efficient last week in completing six passes for 118 yards to Josh Baugh, but an illness could affect the quarterback's playing status. If Contreras can't go, junior Nate Brammer will get the call.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry