Months of preparation have come to a head for southern Oregon's high school football teams and the season openers could not be coming at a better time.

Months of preparation have come to a head for southern Oregon's high school football teams and the season openers could not be coming at a better time.

"It's time for us to play somebody else and see where we are," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. "We've been going against our own kids too long and it's time. We'll learn a lot about ourselves Friday night."

Nowhere is that more important than with the Black Tornado. Mitchell opens his first season at the helm as North Medford's fifth head coach since 2003 and takes a sophomore-driven lineup into tonight's opener against McNary. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Spiegelberg Stadium.

"With so many younger players and a new coaching staff, we've just got to find out where we are and this will tell us," added Mitchell. "We're excited for the chance to find out."

In other games tonight involving Southwest Conference teams, South Medford opens at West Salem, Crater is at No. 7 Tualatin and Grants Pass plays host to Clackamas. Also, Roseburg plays host to South Salem, No. 2 Sheldon is at No. 10 Southridge, South Eugene at Churchill and Thurston at No. 5 Aloha.

Among tonight's other games involving local teams, Ashland, ranked eighth at the 5A level, opens at Klamath Union, Eagle Point plays its first game on the new artificial turf at Eagle Stadim against Mazama, Cascade Christian and Santiam Christian clash in a battle of 3A powers in Corvallis and St. Mary's plays at Rogue River.

For most of the teams, the focus entering tonight's games hasn't been on the matchup as much as simply taking care of themselves.

"They don't know what we're going to do any more than we know what they're going to do," said Mitchell. "We really just have to prepare ourselves and focus on ourselves and our execution."

Sophomore Troy Fowler will make his first varsity start, although he did see playing time in the Black Tornado's play-in loss to David Douglas a year ago. The up-and-comer has good pocket awareness and is able to maintain his accuracy when he rolls away from pressure, and Mitchell is determined to do whatever he can to keep him from taking too many hits this season.

Helping take some pressure off Fowler will be an offensive line, led by senior Fou Polataivao, and a running game powered by senior tailback Evan Hisey. Polataivao brings a sturdy presence at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, while Hisey, who doubles at linebacker, has good strength at 5-11 and 215 pounds but is also quick with the ball.

McNary counters with their own first-year coach in Isaac Parker, who was offensive coordinator at South Salem, and is in a transition of its own with only three returning starters on offense and four on defense. The Celtics expect to be led by a large junior class.

McNary's zone-based spread offense will be keyed by junior running back Brett Hildebrand and senior running back Zac Fegles, who missed last season due to a preseason ACL injury. Three juniors have been in the mix for the starting quarterback spot and include Hayden Gosling, Travis Klampe and Andrew Lawrence.

Last year's leading rusher for McNary, senior Cody Bond, moves back to his natural position and gives the Celtics a proven weapon at slot receiver.

On defense, linebacker Perry Groves led the team in tackles a year ago and will be helped by an experienced defensive line that returns senior Mason Ross and junior Bruce Isabel.

"They're kind of rebuilding but they might be ahead of us from what it sounds like in terms of maturity," said Mitchell, "but I think it will be a good test for us."

SOUTH MEDFORD AT WEST SALEM — West Salem unveils its new black FieldTurf tonight in what has been a race to get that surface installed this week. The Titans hope to achieve at least a share of their fourth straight league title thanks to the return of a solid front line, spearheaded by senior standout Matt Sommer (6-4, 300), and playmaking seniors Nate Henkel (running back/safety), Cody Oden (receiver/cornerback), and Ambros Soh (running back/safety).

Sommer already has scholarship offers from Wyoming and Portland State and shines on the defensive line and will be backed by linebackers Jacob Riddell, Kris Bjornson and Brandon Manus to make things difficult for South Medford. Bjornson led the team in tackles last season.

Henkel was the Titans' second-leading rusher last year, totaling 527 yards and seven touchdowns, and Soh is a standout sprinter for West Salem's track team. Oden averaged 11.5 yards per catch last year and will be a prime target for whichever quarterback gets the nod tonight. Sophomore Cade Smith, the younger brother of Wyoming QB Brett Smith, saw some varsity time last season and is in a battle for the starting spot with senior Riley Newman.

Panthers senior Joe McLaughlin will be making his first varsity start tonight at quarterback and it will be incumbent on South's offensive line to give him time to find Adrian Garcia and Max Farthing, as well as create holes for running backs Christian Bowley, Ben Casebier and Nick Phillips to spark the offense.

CRATER AT TUALATIN — Both teams return several key players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and that should make for a tight contest likely determined by execution and the ability to force — and also avoid — turnovers.

"They look pretty big and physical," said Crater head coach John Beck. "That should give us a good measuring stick for where we can go after our first two ballgames heading into Roseburg."

Running back/linebacker Jeff Williams is a senior returner with all-league honors, a solid frame (6-2, 230) and breakout ability for Tualatin. Cody Summers (6-2, 255) anchors the line with Will Chapman (5-11, 220), who also plays linebacker. Quarterback Brandon Shroyer will look to seniors Andrew Schlottman and Zach Salton to help move the chains.

Crater quarterback Chase Mackey will be charged with driving the offense against Tualatin's strength at defense, and his dual-threat ability as a passer and runner likely will come in handy. Ty Wolf, Carlos Higuerra and Blake Fahndrich will look to spark the running game and provide balance to perimeter athletes Kory Bennett and Dakota Massey.

Linebacker Derrick Turituri anchors an athletic and aggressive Crater defense.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry