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Grizz, Tornado to tussle

Two of state's best battle at Phillips Field

It may be only the third week of the high school football season, but as far as Ashland and North Medford are concerned, a showdown in Grizz town is looming.

The unbeaten, No. 9-ranked Grizzlies host the unbeaten, No. 10-ranked Black Tornado at Walter A. Phillips Field on Friday night.

Kickoff is set for 7:30.

While the Southern Oregon Conference championship race is just getting started, the winner of this matchup will take a big step in securing a state playoff berth.

It's a very big game for both teams, no question about that, nods North Medford coach Rod Rumrey. The winner definitely gains an advantage.

The Black Tornado was picked to finish fourth in the SOC but jumped into immediate contention by upsetting conference favorite Roseburg 26-21 on opening night. North then manhandled Klamath Union 56-13 last week.

Ashland, meanwhile, has jumped to a 3-0 start under veteran coach Jim Nagel, albeit by the skin of its teeth.

The Grizzlies, who had to replace 19 of 22 starting positions from last season's team that went 10-1, needed a touchdown off a fake punt and a goal line stand to beat Hermiston 20-14 on opening night and then leaned on its defense even more in a 14-9 victory over Thurston last week. Inbetween, the Grizz pinned a 20-6 loss on Grants Pass.

What has made Ashland's start even more impressive is that two of its three returning starters -- two-way tackle Ryan Hansen and offensive tackle-defensive end Nick Bakke -- have been nagged by injuries and have sat out about 50 per cent of the plays.

Names like Mike Rydbom and Joel Smith -- Ashland's inside linebackers -- and 5-foot-6, 210-pound noseguard Steve Cornell have burst into the spotlight and molded the Grizzlies into the No. — defensive team in the SOC.

We've had a lot of new faces come to the forefront and get the job done, particularly on defense, says Nagel, whose career record of 140-39 at Ashland stands out like a 6-footer in kindergarten. We've adopted a saying around here, `Whatever it takes,' and this Friday it's going to take quite a lot. North Medford is loaded.

The Tornado certainly has its share of weapons. Tailback Steve DeClerk ranks No. 2 in the SOC in rushing (219 yards) and No. — in scoring (32 points), quarterback Nate Mayben is the No. 2 rated passer (14-of-32 for 246 yards, three TDs) and fullback Ken Halpin and wide receiver Jake Scheid rank seventh and eighth, respectively in receiving.

As a team, North Medford is first in total offense (413 yards per game), first in scoring offense (41.0) and second in total defense (207.5).

Rumrey has been especially pleased with an offensive line that has continually blown open gaping holes for DeClerk and Halpin.

Our line has had two very good games and they're going to need another one this week, Rumrey says.

We've shown a lot of discipline as far as carrying out assignments and not making mistakes. We need to keep that up.

Mayben, who missed part of the preseason while undergoing knee surgery and then suffering a subsequent staph infection, is one of the best athletes in the SOC. Rumrey has brought his QB along slowly -- he didn't start against Roseburg and has yet to run on a designed play -- but Mayben could be turned loose on Friday.

Nate's quickness is coming back, Rumrey says.

If Rumrey has a concern, it's North Medford's kicking game. The Tornado has averaged just 11.8 yards on five punts and placekicker Jimmy Pickrel missed his third PAT of the season against Klamath Union.

Rumrey opened up the placekicking job this week with sophomore Kelly Brown and senior Evan Gordon challenging Pickrel.

Ashland's problems have come on offense, where the Grizzlies are averaging a modest 18 points per game. Smith, who plays fullback on offense, ranks No. — in the SOC in rushing (215 yards) and he's crossed the goal line four times, but the Grizzlies' passing attack has yet to reach the level of past seasons.

Quarterback Jimmy Werbin has thrown six touchdown passes but he's also been intercepted four times in 62 attempts.

Still, Werbin's potential worries Rumrey.

You know it's just a matter of time as to when he gets into his rhythm, Rumrey says. He has a very strong arm.

North Medford hasn't beaten Ashland since 1993, when the Tornado edged the Grizzlies 27-24 in the Class 4A state championship game. In fact, North Medford has but one win (and 12 losses) since the series started in 1986.

But many of the games have been nerve-wracking, heart-stopping, down-to-the-wire nail-biters.

Keep the paramedics ready. There's reason to think Friday's clash could be more of the same.