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North, South swept up in rivalry week

From the practice fields at North and South Medford high schools, there's a little extra bounce in the players' stride and an added hunger to hit someone.

Who says the football teams don't have much to play for when they square off at 7 p.m. Friday in the 22nd annual Black and Blue Bowl?

The No. 7-ranked Panthers may have already secured the Southwest Conference's No. 2 seed to the Class 6A state playoffs, but that doesn't mean there will be any coasting on the turf at Spiegelberg Stadium.

Across town, the Black Tornado has been eliminated from playoff contention but an upset of rival South Medford would cure a lot of ills.

"I know it's cliche to say, but this is one of those games where you throw the records out and anything can happen," says second-year North Medford coach Jeff Olson.

As an added benefit for those in attendance, both teams appear to be playing at their best heading into the intra-city clash.

North Medford (3-5, 1-3 SWC) snapped a five-game losing streak with an impressive win over South Eugene last Friday, while South Medford (6-2, 3-1) scored its third straight victory with a gritty comeback in Roseburg.

"It takes care of itself," South Medford quarterback A.J. Palazzolo says of gearing up for Friday's big game. "The town gets into it, the newspaper and TV stations get into it ... we know it's a big game. But we just want to have fun. If we overthink it, we're not going to play like we should so we're just going to try and stay relaxed and make some memories for ourselves."

In Friday's other SWC finales, 10th-ranked Grants Pass (7-2, 2-2) is at Roseburg (4-4, 2-2) and third-ranked Sheldon (8-1, 4-0) is at South Eugene (4-4, 0-4).

Sheldon has already wrapped up the No. 1 seed out of the SWC, but a loss to South Eugene and a South Medford win would make the Irish and Panthers co-champions of the league. The winner of the Grants Pass-Roseburg game will get the SWC's No. 3 seed to the state playoffs, and the loser is the No. 4 seed.

North Medford has won eight of the last 10 Black and Blue Bowls, and holds a 14-7 lead in the series that began in 1986 when Medford High split into two schools.

This year's game picked up added lustre in recent weeks thanks to South Medford's stunning upset of previously undefeated Grants Pass two weeks ago and North Medford's 46-35 thumping of the Axemen behind a phenomenal performance by Jordan Ellis.

In only his third varsity start at quarterback, Ellis accounted for 405 yards of total offense and passed for five touchdowns to give the Tornado some momentum heading into Friday's game.

"It was definitely the most calming game that I've had (at quarterback)," says the 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior. "Hopefully we can get another win like that."

Ellis already had the attention of the South Medford coaching staff when he moved behind center prior to the Tornado's game against the Cavemen on Oct. 12. Completing 22 of 30 passes for 302 yards and rushing for 103 yards on 16 carries last week cemented his targeted status.

"If you have a quarterback that's multidimensional, it gives you multiple problems on defense," says 10th-year South Medford coach Bill Singler. "With this type of offensive attack and Jordan running it, North now has become a bona fide offensive threat. You have to account for him every play now because he's handling the ball on every snap. That's scary and we know it. We have our hands full with him and what he can do."

The Panthers possess a more conventional attack, but provide their own share of problems for a Tornado defense that is allowing an average of about 350 yards per game. Palazzolo has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,104 yards with 19 TDs and nine interceptions, while tailback Patrick Thibeault is two weeks removed from a 292-yard rushing effort against GP.

"It's going to be an interesting matchup because they've got their problems defending us and we're going to have ours defending them," says Singler. "Both offenses could have a good night on Friday."

That's music to the ears of Palazzolo, who suffered through his worst game as a QB in last year's 21-0 North Medford victory. The then-junior completed only 6 of 24 passes for 24 yards as the Panthers notched only 153 yards of total offense against the swarming Tornado defense.

"I was overthinking things at Roseburg," says Palazzolo of his four-interception outing. "I'm just going to have fun out there and not press (against North). It's a big game and a game you dream of growing up, but you've still got to have fun."

North Medford finally got that light-hearted feeling back with last week's win, and Olson says it's important for his team to hold onto that and build on it Friday. The 46 points scored against South Eugene was a season-high, as was the 455 yards of total offense.

"For the first time in a long time we scored some points last week and we need to carry that momentum forward," says the Tornado coach. "I'm not saying get in a track meet with (South), but we need to build on last week. This is really a character check for us in terms of can we move forward from what we did last week and show some consistency."

GRANTS PASS AT ROSEBURG — A higher seed in the state playoffs would be nice, but right now the thoughts at Grants Pass are of not entering the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.

Just two weeks ago, the Cavemen were ranked fifth in the 6A poll and undefeated. Ensuing losses to South Medford (44-22) and Sheldon (42-7) have shaken but not deterred those in Grants Pass.

An ankle injury sustained late against the Panthers slowed junior tailback Criss Bowen against Sheldon, leaving him to total only 16 yards on five carries before heading to the sidelines for good against the Irish. Another week should have Bowen closer to full strength, but there's a thought that GP might as well hold him back another week so he could be completely healthy for a playoff run.

Roseburg quarterback Jake Johnson had the Panthers on the ropes last week with two touchdown passes and a scoring run to give his Indians a 21-0 lead. South Medford answered with 28 straight points to secure the victory, but the first half of play should be something Roseburg can use as a springboard into Friday's affair.

SHELDON AT SOUTH EUGENE — Sheldon remains in the hunt for the state record in consecutive league victories, winning its 55th straight conference encounter last week in a rout of Grants Pass to equal the second-best mark in Oregon history set by Marshfield.

Heppner High, in the Class 2A Blue Mountain Conference, will look to extend its record on Friday when it plays at Elgin High. Heppner has won 60 straight league encounters entering the fray, but both teams boast undefeated league marks so the end could potentially be near.

A 56th straight win Friday against intra-city rival South Eugene would help Sheldon secure its second straight outright SWC title. The Axemen took the Irish into overtime last year before eventually succumbing 27-21.

Sheldon has outscored its opponents by an average score of about 32-12, and the Irish rank first in the SWC in total defense (221.1 ypg). Sheldon also boasts the top-rated quarterback (Jordan Johnson) and running back (Zach Todd) in the conference.

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