The difference between finishing fourth or fifth in the Southwest Conference football standings used to mean the difference between a continued season and turning in your uniform.

The difference between finishing fourth or fifth in the Southwest Conference football standings used to mean the difference between a continued season and turning in your uniform.

While that is no longer the case in the all-inclusive playoff format adopted by the Oregon School Activities Association, a final standing among the top four in the SWC still carries a significant reward with one week off and automatic placing in the 32-team state playoff bracket.

The bottom four teams in the SWC will still have the opportunity to reach the final bracket, but only through a play-in round slated next week — and all but the SWC's No. 5 seed will be on the road.

All this makes North Medford's regular season finale at 7 tonight against Thurston that much more compelling. The Black Tornado (4-4, 3-3 SWC) currently sits fifth in the SWC standings, one game behind those same Colts and cross-town rival South Medford (5-3, 4-2).

With a win tonight, and a Panther road loss to No. 1 Sheldon, North Medford could force a three-way tie for third in the conference and gain its only chance at an automatic berth through a three-team coin flip.

"We're just in a must-win kind of attitude right now," said Black Tornado senior Gage Jacobson. "This is our season and everybody knows it."

In other SWC action tonight, Crater (2-6, 0-6) plays host to No. 6 Roseburg (7-1, 5-1) and Grants Pass (1-7, 1-5) is at South Eugene (1-7, 1-5).

Thurston (5-3, 4-2) comes to Spiegelberg Stadium as one of the surprise teams in the SWC and fresh off a 28-0 loss to undefeated Sheldon, which was the second-lowest point total amassed by the Irish (8-0, 6-0) this season.

"They're a tremendous football team," said North Medford head coach Jeff Olson. "They're well-coached and spread people out on offense and they're very physical on defense."

Kraig Akins is Thurston's leading tackler and thrives in the Bear front defense, popularized by the NFL team in Chicago as a means to slow the running game through its alignment and ability to blitz eight players at a time on any given play.

Austin Jaros, A.J. Glander, Kristian Smith and Rhett Ybarra are equally prominent in a system that has held up well against the prominent rushing attacks by Roseburg and South Medford.

On the flip side, North Medford has been at its best when able to run the football. Senior tailback Jesse Hornbrook eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last week against Roseburg and stands at 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns on 156 carries entering tonight's game. Hornbrook trails only South Medford's Kevin Gilmore (184 carries for 1,079 yards and 14 TDs) in SWC rushing.

The Black Tornado's passing game, essentially dormant all season, could be revived tonight with the return of senior quarterback Brian Reese. Reese injured his knee in North's second game of the season and has worked hard to get back on the field again. He continued to attend practices and has been seen throwing the football on the sidelines for the past few weeks, and rejoined full practice this week. Reese even added more duties with some work at safety.

"He's been hit and hit people and gone down to the ground and knocked other people to the ground," said Olson. "You wouldn't know he had any injuries."

The Tornado expects to maintain its offensive philosophy, which is similar to that of Thurston in its run-first nature, but Reese's presence does open the possibility of an occasional aerial attack should the rust on his right arm not be too thick.

North Medford has been capably guided by Cory Pine and Zach Tanner in the weeks since Reese went down to injury, so the Black Tornado does have the luxury of bringing Reese back as slowly as necessary.

"I think we're playing much better football now and we're playing for 48 minutes," said Olson. "I want to continue that trend because we're right around the corner from the playoffs. Playing well (tonight) could get us in a pretty interesting position."

Should a coin flip be necessary to determine the tiebreaker, it will occur following tonight's game in Medford. The odd coin in the three-coin flip gains the highest seed, and the next two spots are determined by head-to-head matchup.

Finishing first or fourth in the standings theoretically doesn't matter since the 32-team playoff bracket will be established by the Class 6A power rankings. Twenty-one teams automatically qualify for the playoff bracket, while the remaining 22 will face play-in games next week to determine the other 11 spots.

In the play-in scenario, the SWC's No. 5 team will get a home game against the No. 6 seed from the Three Rivers League (Clackamas), while the SWC's No. 6-8 teams face road games. The sixth-place team plays at Grant or Lincoln, while the SWC's No. 7 is at the No. 4 team from the Mount Hood Conference and the eighth-place squad gets a date with the No. 4 team from the Metro League.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com