North Medford football coach Mike Mitchell said last week that his team would be treating Friday’s 32nd edition of the Black and Blue Game against South Medford as a midseason “bowl game” to add further hype to the crosstown rivalry.
South Medford head coach Bill Singler wasn’t willing to echo that sentiment as his Panthers seek an eighth win in the last 11 years of the series at Spiegelberg Stadium, but he knows full well the stakes at hand for the Southwest Conference contest.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going that far,” said Singler, “but we know how important the game is because it’s an in-town rival. You get bragging rights for 365 days when you win the game, and when you lose it, you don’t have those bragging rights.”
The fifth-ranked Panthers (3-1, 1-0 SWC) snapped a three-game losing streak with last year’s 31-21 win to trim their overall series deficit to 17-14, but Friday’s game against the Black Tornado (1-3, 1-1) may as well be considered a launching point toward bigger and better for 2017 given how this season has already gone.
South Medford entered the season as a top challenger to Sheldon for the SWC title but has been riddled with injuries in recent weeks.
North Medford, meanwhile, struggled to get out of its own away before making a bold statement last week with its early effort against second-ranked Sheldon.
“They’re just a team in progress, kind of like us,” said Singler, in his 20th year with the Panthers. “We’re certainly not where we need to be, especially with the injuries we’ve had on the offensive line. Getting those linemen hurt has kind of set us back some schematically and systematically with our approach, so we’re a little more basic than we would be at this time of the year, but that’s OK.”
While fending off North Medford would get the Panthers another week closer to getting some key players back in the fold and maintain their standing among the state’s best, across town the idea is for the Tornado to conjure up one of those statement wins that builds on confidence that’s been brewing in recent weeks.
“We feel this is a game where nobody worries about our preseason,” said Mitchell, in his sixth year with North Medford. “It’s just a different game where none of that matters. We told our kids that 97 percent of the kids that ever play high school football never get to play before (thousands of) people, so this is a fun game and a big experience for them, and the best team’s going to win.”
Most of those who will be in uniform have played against, and sometimes with, their opponents on the other sideline, and there’s no accounting for the myriad motivating factors each carries into the contest.
“This game means everything to me,” said North junior Eli Spence. “It’s the most important game of the season. I think all of our dedication to this year is probably put to this game, and I think we’re ready for this game.”
“If we play the way that we played against Sheldon in the first quarter, of course,” he added, “I think we’re ready for South Medford.”
Panthers senior Chase Cota will be making his fourth appearance in the Black and Blue Game and will be seeking to pull his record even at 2-2 with a win.
“I think it’s really exciting for me because I’ll be with all my classmates this year,” said Cota. “I didn’t get to play against North on the freshman team with everybody else, so this will be our first time all together, so that will be super fun. I’m looking forward to it a lot.”
Last year, South Medford bolted out to a 24-7 lead before North Medford rallied to within 24-21 with nine minutes to play. Panther playmakers Jaylin Parnell, Robbie Patterson and Cota then helped seal the victory with a steady scoring drive on the ensuing series.
“When we came back to 24-21 last year, I thought we were going to win the game,” said Mitchell. “For a while there we really had momentum, and then we kind of let them off the hook.”
That same scenario has hampered the Tornado for much of this season, with penalties and missed execution impeding its progress. In last week’s 35-7 loss to Sheldon, North Medford withstood an early turnover and was in prime position at 7-all until a late stumble in the second quarter led to a 21-7 halftime deficit.
“Defensively, I think we’re getting there,” said Mitchell. “Last week we had an awful lot of good things in that game. You sound like a broken record sometime when you’re close, but we’re real close. When you break that film down, we should’ve been in the game all the way into the third quarter feeling pretty good about ourselves and then we had some turnovers. Friday night we can’t have turnovers and beat a good football team. We’ve got to protect the ball and our quarterback has got to make plays.”
North Medford senior QB Josh Robbins has done well to push past any in-game setbacks to keep the Tornado driving to the end. Robbins has completed 47 of 106 passes for 774 yards, with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
With Spence (14 catches, 268 yards, three TDs) complemented by seniors Vicente Borja (10 catches, 177 yards, one TD) and Tyler Evans (11 catches, 168 yards, four TDs), the Black Tornado has big play threats on the perimeter.
A key in recent weeks has been the boost to the running game provided by senior Isaac Manuel, who had 72 yards on 20 carries last week.
“They have a quarterback that has experience in Robbins and a couple receivers that are good,” said Singler. “We’ve seen them in passing league and we know they can be very productive, and (Manuel) looks like he’s coming into his own and we have to be concerned with that.”
On the flip side, Patterson has steadily steered the ship for South Medford by completing 56 of 84 passes for 823 yards, 11 TDs and three interceptions.
His progress has been aided by a powerful running game featuring Parnell (48 carries, 285 yards, four TDs) that opens lanes on the perimeter for playmakers like seniors Jaalen Owens (12 catches, 282 yards, four TDs) and Cota (14 catches, 243 yards, four TDs).
“They have some tools and they can hurt you in a lot of ways,” said Mitchell.
One tool that will remain in the toolbox is senior Kaleb Franklin, who last year joined North Medford’s A.J. Raye in setting a Black and Blue Game record with nine receptions. Franklin remains sidelined with a knee injury.
“We’re a little bit different team right now than we were two weeks ago,” said Singler, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not a good team. We still have a lot of talent and a lot of enthusiasm and we’re coming off a couple wins, so we just need to keep building on that and hopefully we’ll be a better team as we get some of these guys back toward the end of the year.”
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry