It’s an experiment that has true benefit and merit, but also one with a big hill to climb before permanent implementation throughout...
One by one they poured out of the North Medford locker room late Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium, smiles as broad as the Grand Canyon as echoes of Queen's "We are the champions" blared from the overhead speakers.
It was a scene these Black Tornado football players had never encountered, yet it was one they so clearly desired to cherish.
Huddling for post-game pictures with a 2013 Southwest Conference champions banner as the backdrop, it didn't matter how they were able to clinch the outright title against Roseburg.
All that mattered is that they did.
North Medford clinched one of the more impressive program turnarounds in recent memory on Friday, using a stout defensive effort and a little good fortune to edge the visiting Indians, 14-10, and cap an undefeated run through the SWC.
It's the first outright title for the Black Tornado (8-1, 7-0 SWC) since 2003 and quite an about-face for a program that went winless only two years ago. North Medford shared the conference title in 2005, which was also the last winning season until this year.
"We've been bad for so long," North Medford senior lineman Hunter Hermansen said amid the celebration, "so for our (11) seniors, this was the biggest game we've ever played. It's the greatest feeling to win this conference championship by going undefeated our senior year."
The Black Tornado's comeback win over Roseburg denied Sheldon a chance at a piece of its fifth straight conference title, and allowed North Medford to join South Medford as the only other teams to have earned the SWC crown beside the Irish since the league was formed in 2006.
"To go undefeated this year after what they've been through, I'm real happy for these kids," said second-year North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team receives an automatic bye to the start of the state playoffs on Nov. 8.
For a team that had made its way up the conference ladder with a prolific offense, the fifth-ranked Black Tornado found that it could win with defense on this night. North Medford entered the game averaging 421 yards of total offense but could only manage 292 against Roseburg in a battle of the SWC's top defensive units.
The Black Tornado limited the Indians to 222 yards of total offense — all but one 20-yard catch by Travis Dever coming on the ground — and held them scoreless in the second half.
"It was definitely a tough game," said Hermansen. "They really came out ready to play and really wanted to get their seed so they could have a bye week next week. But I think we met the competition and just had to play hard and aggressive to overcome that."
Roseburg's final two drives settled in near the North Medford 35-yard line before the Indians were ultimately rebuffed. The first drive was halted thanks to a couple big defensive efforts by Hermansen, and the second was squashed behind three sacks and a series-ending interception by Tristen Holmes with 50.7 seconds to play.
"I think our defensive front got good pressure at key times and it was a real good team effort on defense," said Mitchell. "I'm real happy with what they did."
Roseburg scored on its first series of the game when quarterback Cody Walker ran a bootleg in from 5 yards out for a 7-0 advantage. The teams traded interceptions, one by Walker and then another immediately after that by North's Jared Evans to break up a pass following a reverse to Noah Avery.
On the ensuing drive, Nick Janakes pounded the Tornado downfield with determined efforts that eventually paid off for a 22-yard scoring scamper. The junior tailback accounted for 80 of the 87 yards on the scoring drive, but a blocked extra-point attempt against Isaac Grether left Roseburg's lead at 7-6.
Will Reddekopp added another interception of North Medford's Troy Fowler in the second quarter in the junior quarterback's least productive game of the season — he finished 6-for-16 for 126 yards — and Roseburg's Austin Walker later drilled a 38-yard field goal on an untimed final down of the first half to make it 10-6 at intermission.
"Our football team was off balance in the first half," said Mitchell. "I just said at halftime for them to regroup and settle down because being close happens."
Whether the magnitude of the moment had gotten to the Tornado or not, everything became a wash on the first play of the second half when Fowler found Holmes for a go-ahead 76-yard touchdown pass. On the play, which was essentially a jump ball just beyond midfield, Roseburg defensive back Austin Hutchins leaped to deny Holmes but couldn't get enough of the ball to deter the big play.
"Troy trusted me to go up and get the ball," Holmes said of the momentum-changer. "Their guy actually tipped it and it was just an unlucky bounce for him because it just came right into my hands. I had the easy part to just run in with it."
When Fowler then scrambled to find Janakes wide open for a two-point conversion pass, North had its first lead at 14-10 and was brimming with confidence from there on out.
"We just came out with a lot more intensity in the second half," added Holmes. "We were really dead in the first half and we knew that we needed to pick it up if we wanted to get the win. We came out with a little fire in the second half and did what we needed to do to finally get the win."
Janakes led the charge with 135 yards rushing on 19 carries, while Holmes caught two passes for 87 yards. The real heroes, however, were on the defensive side of the ball, where Hermansen, Calvinn Casaday, Skyler Black, Edmund Polataivao, Will Spence and Grether led the charge to slow Roseburg's option attack.
After Walker somehow managed to elude the rush and gain 19 yards on a fourth-and-18 play during Roseburg's final drive, the defensive line stuffed a run and then Black and Polataivao combined for a sack. Hermansen then came up with a tackle for no gain against SWC leading rusher Levi Holden, who had 144 yards on 17 carries, before Holmes iced it with his interception.
"Big plays happen, it's part of football," said Hermansen. "You just have to deal with it and regroup and come out ready for the next play and stop them there. We just knew that this was it and to defend our conference championship and we stepped up and held them."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry