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A season of clearing hurdles simply wouldn't have been complete for North Medford without a win in the 28th annual Black and Blue Game against South Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium.
With a boisterous crowd of supporters in the visiting grandstand, the fifth-ranked Black Tornado proved it, indeed, is back and accomplished its mission with an impressive 42-14 win Friday that snapped a six-year losing streak to the Panthers.
North Medford junior quarterback Troy Fowler fired away with pinpoint precision, and matchup nightmare Jared Evans equaled a Black and Blue Game record with eight receptions that he turned into 149 yards and three touchdowns.
"Obviously it's the biggest win of this year," Evans said of topping South Medford. "Beating your rivals in your home stadium, it's just the greatest feeling. Six years it took to get to this point, and it's just an exhilarating experience honestly."
The Black Tornado had lost the last three matchups with South Medford by a combined total of 125-10 but broke Friday's game open with a 22-0 surge in the second quarter and was never seriously threatened after that.
North Medford's 42 points marked the most it has scored in the cross-town series, which it leads 15-13, since winning 60-17 in 2003. The 14 points allowed were the least since a 21-0 win in 2006.
"I think the key thing in the game tonight was our kids played as physical as we've played all year," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. "I'm just really happy how we played. And that's what we talked pregame, we said we don't just want to win we want to be proud of how we play this game, and I'm very proud of how we played."
Not lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Black Tornado's seventh straight victory clinched no worse than a share of the Southwest Conference title — the program's first crown since its last winning season in 2005. North Medford (7-1, 6-0 SWC) can claim the outright title with a win at home next Friday against Roseburg.
"We're ahead of schedule, obviously, and I couldn't be happier with where we are as a program right now," said Mitchell, who also got rivalry wins at the freshman and JV levels on Thursday. "The kids are working hard every day and they're just really doing the job. This is a junior team, we're going to get better and better, so we're excited about that."
It was an uneventful start for Fowler and company but the quarterback soon heated up and wound up completing 11 of 14 passes for 238 yards and three of his four touchdowns in the first half. The junior finished 17-for-22 passing for 285 yards and saw his chances at equaling a Black and Blue Game record for TD passes go out the window when Nick Janakes found Eugene Ellis for a wide-open 23-yard score on a double pass with 7:43 to play.
"I didn't care if I went 1-for-30 with one pick if we still won, it didn't matter," said Fowler. "I'm just glad to get the monkey off our back and now we have the chance to go sweep the SWC."
South Medford (2-6, 2-4) had the look of a team bent on rolling a lucky seven against the Tornado early on Friday, striking first on a three-play drive capped by a nice 40-yard catch-and-run by senior Mark Winans off a pass from junior Craig Contreras. The drive was set up by a 48-yard punt return from sophomore Brady Breeze.
That 7-0 lead didn't last long, however, as Fowler went deep to Evans for a 56-yard answer four plays later. On the play, the 6-foot-3 Evans simply reached over 5-9 defender C.J. Daniels for the ball and then kept streaking down the field. Preston Chachere's extra-point attempt to tie failed, however, leaving the Panthers still up 7-6.
A potential turning point came on the ensuing series for South Medford, which advanced as far as the Tornado 14-yard line but lost its chance to extend the lead when Riley Williams' 32-yard field goal attempt was low and blocked.
"We were kind of our own worst enemy early," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "We had a couple nice runs that got called back by penalties and put ourselves in bad situations and we just couldn't fight through that."
"We lost the momentum that we had," added Singler, "and North really did a good job responding and they executed well."
Energized by the defensive stand, North Medford marched 70 yards in 10 plays to take a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Will Spence's second effort on a third-down run where he appeared to be stacked up in the backfield kept the chains moving, and Janakes put his team over the top with a 5-yard scoring run. Fowler then found Evans for a two-point conversion to make it 14-7.
After the Tornado forced a three-and-out, Fowler found Josh Hansen for a 40-yard gain to put his team into scoring position and Ellis capped the drive with a 5-yard TD grab. North Medford then broke the game open inside the final minute of the first half with another key 40-yard reception by Hansen that led to a 24-yard scoring strike to Evans for a 28-7 halftime edge.
"Last week Jared didn't catch a ball so we wanted to get him in the mix tonight and he really did a job out there," said Mitchell of Evans, who had six catches for 135 yards at halftime. "I thought he played exceptional."
The second half was more of the same, with Edmund Polataivao's interception setting the stage for a 5-yard TD connection from Fowler to Evans, who reached around the back of defender Eric Wallan to secure the ball in the end zone.
South's only answer came in the form of a 28-yard TD pass from Contreras to Winans on a fourth-down play that made it 35-14 with 1:58 to go in the third quarter. Contreras finished 7-for-18 passing for 165 yards and two TDs to Winans, who paced the Panthers with three catches for 118 yards.
"We came out really fired up," said Winans, "but they kept on responding and we just didn't have the energy to match them tonight. They have a lot of really good players. Props to them, they came out and they beat us."
North's final score came on the double pass from Fowler to Janakes to Ellis with 7:43 to go. Evans picked up his eighth catch on the drive to join North's Isaac Silafau (2007) and South's Josh Havird (2009) atop the record book.
"Obviously it's an honor," Evans said of the record. "There's so much history that's been here, almost 30 years, and to be part of that is obviously the biggest experience of my high school career."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry