Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
The only matchup of top-10 Class 6A football programs will be at Spiegelberg Stadium on Friday, with No. 5 North Medford and No. 6 Oregon City offering a lot of familiarity and some similarities for the second-round battle.
"It's going to be a good football game on Friday," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. "It's going to be two similar teams with a lot of good athletes all over the field."
Friday's game marks the first playoff meeting between the Black Tornado and Pioneers — each standing 9-1 overall — since the 1962 state semifinals. Under the direction of quarterback Danny Miles, the Black Tornado secured a 20-7 win and went on to beat North Salem for the state title a week later. Oregon City was one of three teams to even score against the Tornado that season.
Mitchell is familiar with the Portland-area program after having coached there from 1984-85 — he brought the Pioneers to town in '85 and beat Southern Oregon Conference co-champion Crater 20-18 in the first round.
He's also familiar with current Oregon City head coach Bruce Reece, the school's athletic director who had to step in and assume control of the program when head coach Kevin Strasser was suspended indefinitely after allegedly pawning the watch of a former player. Reece played under Mitchell as a backup quarterback while at Grants Pass High in the mid-1970s and later coached with him at Hidden Valley.
The two have remained in contact over the years and Mitchell said he's pleased to see the continued success of one of his players.
"Bruce is doing just a really good job after having a real tough deal there and having to step in like he has," said Mitchell. "They're a well-coached team and it's going to take an effort to beat them."
The Three Rivers League champions feature an explosive running game spearheaded by a physical front line and dynamic sophomore running back Conner Mitchell, who tied for sixth in state rushing with 1,590 yards on 244 attempts during the regular season. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder rushed for 13 touchdowns and managed 105 yards and two TDs on 15 carries during last week's 40-23 win over McMinnville before leaving with a deep thigh bruise.
"We assume he'll be back and he's a handful," said Mitchell. "I saw him earlier this year versus Crater when we exchanged film and I thought back then, 'I hope we're not playing those guys,' just from the running back alone. He can really control a game if you let him."
Oregon City is far from a one-dimensional team, however, as senior quarterback Jon Hall completed 94 of 164 passes for 1,506 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions during the regular season. In last week's first-round win, Hall was 16-for-22 for 318 yards and three TDs.
Leading the way on the perimeter for Oregon City has been senior receiver Matthew Oades (37 catches for 531 yards and five TDs) and sophomore Trevon Bradford (22 receptions for 525 yards and six TDs). Hall and Oades were in rhythm last week to the tune of six connections for 146 yards and two scores.
"We've just got to try to contain this team," said Mitchell. "We know it's not going to be a shutout kinda ballgame anyway. But if we play good defense and don't give up big plays, we give ourselves a chance because we have an ability to score."
Already the school's single-season passing leader in yardage, North Medford junior quarterback Troy Fowler became the single-season record-holder in touchdown passes last week after completing 10 of 25 passes for 275 yards, four TDs and one interception in a 49-27 win over Reynolds.
Fowler was dinged up with an elbow bruise that affected him during the game but has recovered nicely during the week and is showing no ill effects. To help ease the burden on the quarterback, the Tornado unleashed junior Nick Janakes on the Raiders and he split the defense for 115 yards and three TDs on 22 carries.
"We feel good about what we're doing offense-wise," said Mitchell. "We've just got to keep rolling and keep that balance and continue to execute. I thought Nick really gave us a lift with the running game when Troy went down. We just had to take control of the game time-wise and we did."
North Medford suffered a blow on defense when senior lineman Dontae Mims was lost last week to a knee injury but the Tornado has been able to rotate linemen in throughout the season so Mitchell hopes the team will be able to absorb the loss.
Linebackers Edmund Polataivao, Isaac Grether, Will Spence and Janakes will be key in containing Mitchell and company, along with the help of defensive standouts Hunter Hermansen, Calvinn Casaday and Skyler Black.
"When you get to this level of the playoffs they're all the same because they're all good," said North Medford defensive coordinator Chris Kincaid. "You're not going to be playing any Mary Sisters of the Poor. These guys have a great passing attack and an outstanding sophomore running back. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry