A lot of heart and a little luck proved to be a winning combination for North Medford against Oregon City in a top-10 matchup during the Class 6A football state playoffs Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium.
In a battle of conference champions that seemed destined to be an offensive shootout, a handful of defensive stands by the fifth-ranked Black Tornado proved instrumental and some improvisations by quarterback Troy Fowler crippled the No. 6 Pioneers en route to a 14-9 second-round triumph.
North Medford (10-1) kept Oregon City scoreless on three of its five trips inside the Tornado 20-yard line and held a potent Pioneers attack to 367 yards of total offense and 23 points below their scoring average.
"That was a good ol' fashioned defensive football game," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team has now won 10 straight games. "I thought this was going to be a high-scoring game. I thought we were going to have to outscore them to win but the defense played great. I knew we'd been playing good defense but I didn't think it'd be that kind of game. But as long as we score more than them we're OK."
The win advances the Black Tornado to its first trip to the quarterfinals since 2005, where it will hit the road to play second-ranked Tigard. The Tigers (11-0) crushed Grants Pass 62-3 in other second-round action Friday.
"It's weird going from being kicked out of the play-in game (in 2012) to now the final eight," said North Medford junior Tristen Holmes, whose 4-yard touchdown grab proved to be the game-winner. "It's crazy but we're just going to keep rolling with it and see where it takes us."
Holmes blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt by Alex Canchola on Oregon City's first possession and fellow junior Nick Janakes intercepted a Jonathan Hall pass after the Pioneers reached the 17-yard line on their next drive.
But the biggest defensive stand of the game for the Southwest Conference champions came after they took a 14-9 lead with 5:20 to play. Oregon City (9-2) used a 44-yard heave by Hall to Matthew Oades to reach the Tornado 14.
After Holmes snuffed out a reverse by Trevon Bradford for a 3-yard gain, Edmund Polataivao blew up a read-option play by Hall for a 6-yard loss. Holmes then broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Oades and, on fourth-and-13 from the 17, Micah Brown just missed an interception on an incomplete pass.
"We've been down at the end of games before so we kinda knew how to handle it," said Holmes. "Our line and linebackers and secondary, we all just buckled down to make plays at the end. It's just really good to come together like that and get a team win."
The Three Rivers League champions managed one final drive inside the final minute but two straight incompletions by Hall from the Tornado 38 gave the ball back to North Medford on downs with only 10 seconds to go.
"It just didn't happen tonight," said Oregon City head coach Bruce Reece. "We thought we were going to be able to convert every time we got down in the red zone and it just didn't happen."
North Medford only managed to get inside Oregon City's 20-yard line on two occasions, with one resulting in a missed 43-yard field goal by senior Garrett Byrd with 10 seconds to go in the third quarter and the other set up on an improvisation by Fowler when the team set up for another 43-yard attempt by Byrd in the fourth.
With seven minutes to play and the Tornado down 9-8, Byrd trotted out for his second field goal try with all the faith in the world from Mitchell and his teammates. His first 43-yard attempt dipped just below the crossbar — usually a good thing since Byrd is a soccer standout — but his second never got airborne.
"When we were going for the field goal I just fumbled the snap and so I tried to run around and make a play," said Fowler, who finished 13-for-21 for 195 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.
Fowler looked for Janakes but his teammate was unaware that he was scrambling with the ball. In a bit of desperation, the junior QB dropped back even farther before ultimately catching a glimpse of sophomore Will Spence downfield. Fowler's prayer sailed high into traffic but Spence was able to wedge his way up through the defense for a season-saving 18-yard grab at the Oregon City 8-yard line.
"I looked back and saw Will streaking down the field so I just chucked it up," said Fowler. "If they picked it they were going to be down anyway right there so I didn't really care about that. That was a huge catch for a sophomore."
Typically the one to come down with such dramatic plays, even Holmes had to tip his cap to the fullback.
"Will came out of nowhere, it was an amazing catch on that ball," said Holmes. "I was pumped up for that one. I was so glad Will came down with it."
It was the second time on the night when Fowler made something out of nothing. After Micah Brown's 34-yard punt return set up a 38-yard scoring strike to Janakes for the game's first score, Fowler turned a bad snap into a two-point conversion run for an 8-0 advantage.
"It became a broken play, but Troy's really good at that," said Mitchell. "He makes plays when something bad happens."
After a quick 5-yard run by Janakes and a 1-yard loss on a second attempt, Fowler tested Holmes in the corner of the end zone and the junior receiver came up huge with a sensational 4-yard grab high up the ladder over Jonathan Marquett.
"My whole team believed that I could go up and get it and Troy put it a perfect place for me to go up and make a play on it," said Holmes, who had four catches for 60 yards, "and I just happened to come down with it."
Wild fortune played a hand in Oregon City's first scoring opportunity when Eugene Ellis blocked a punt by Clay Valenzuela-Reece but the kicker gathered the ball and found Marquett for a 45-yard gain on the Pioneer's first drive. Later, sophomore standout Conner Mitchell called for a fake punt on fourth down near midfield and his 28-yard pass to Tristan Birge allowed Oregon City to score its only TD with 36.2 seconds left in the first half.
Mitchell finished with 149 yards and an 8-yard TD run on 25 carries to pace his team, while Hall was 12-for-30 for 118 yards and one interception.
The Pioneers loaded up to stop the running game, keeping North to 26 yards on 31 carries as Janakes managed 14 yards on 14 attempts and Brown led the way with 32 yards on eight carries.
"(Janakes) is a great running back and we knew we had to stop him, and those receivers are fantastic, too," said Reece. "We had to take whatever poison was worst and we felt the running back was the worst poison at that time."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry