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North, South seek to get leg up in SWC

It will be déjà vu for the football teams at North Medford and South Medford when they meet on the field at 7 tonight at Spiegelberg Stadium.

A year ago at this time, both teams headed into the annual Black and Blue Bowl with 1-0 records in the Southwest Conference and one loss overall.

When North and South square off tonight, each will do it with 4-1 overall records and one win in SWC play against no losses.

What happens next could be the biggest step either team will make to date.

"Going 2-0 in the league is huge when you only have five league games," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler, "so it's going to be very exciting, like all these North-South games are. It's going to be a huge battle."

In the case of last year, the Panthers used a 35-14 victory to springboard them to their first-ever SWC title. The Black Tornado experienced an opposite result, with that game marking the first of four straight losses to close the season.

"One of the issues that's been running through my mind is we were in a similar situation last year after a come-from-behind win over South Eugene and we ended up losing and didn't make the playoffs," says North Medford head coach Jeff Olson. "So this is obviously a huge step for us."

Truth be told, North and South could easily be winless in conference play heading into tonight's game. The Black Tornado trailed South Eugene 7-0 at halftime before rallying for a 10-7 win, while the Panthers scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to earn a 31-21 road victory over Grants Pass.

The confidence gained from those outings makes each team dangerous for the 24th annual event.

"You've got to give them credit for coming back in ballgames," Singler says of the Tornado. "They've learned how to win. This year they seem to be mentally tougher, they believe in themselves and they seem more together and finish off games, where maybe they've let a couple slip away in the past."

Olson is equally impressed with how the Panthers overcame adversity last Friday.

"They were down 21-17 to Grants Pass (in the fourth quarter) and it didn't faze them. They just methodically put the pressure on and forced Grants Pass to fold and found a way to win. That's just really impressive."

Finding a way to win was exactly how South Medford closed its series deficit to North Medford to 14-9 a year ago. The game was tied at 14-all with seven minutes to play before the Panthers broke the contest open with 21 straight points during a 31/2 minute stretch.

The third-ranked Panthers have endured almost a complete roster overhaul but haven't missed a beat as new names have followed in the footsteps of those who came before them. South Medford is averaging almost 352 yards and 28 points per game, while allowing 19 points and 265 yards.

"They're extremely well-coached and very deserving of their state ranking," says Olson of the Panthers. "So far they're defending their conference championship with a lot of class. They may not have the marquee names they had last year, but they have good kids and it's a tribute to Bill and his staff that they're able to play as well as they are this year."

Across town, North Medford has used a host of returning talents to produce the top-rated defense in the SWC. The Black Tornado is allowing an average of 224 yards and 12 points per game, and complements that with an offense that churns out 277 yards and 22 points per game.

"They've got to be feeling pretty good about themselves and what they've accomplished," adds Singler. "They've really done some good things already this year."

Each team boasts a legitimate weapon at quarterback in senior Josh Milhollin for South and junior Brian Reese for North and a bevy of receivers to haul in their passes. Milhollin has completed 81 of 125 passes for 1,028 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, while Reese has thrown for 1,013 yards and six TDs with seven interceptions on 79-for-124 passing.

Tornado senior Cory Haggans is the SWC's second-leading receiver with 515 yards and five scores on 29 receptions, while Panthers senior Allen Fitzsimmons is right on his heels with 28 catches for 377 yards and five TDs.

Brandon Dollarhide (18 for 254) and Josh Havird (17 for 218) are also top threats on the perimeter for South, as are Fiki Silafau (13 for 171) and Jeremy Scottow (16 for 123) for North.

Kevin Gilmore, a junior, also ranks fourth among SWC running backs for the Panthers with 338 yards on 67 carries, with teammate Mario Sainez adding 226 yards on 59 carries.

A prime reason for South's offensive exploits has been in a steady offensive line that has been equally capable to block for the running and passing game. A couple key performers have been senior tackles Mark Combs and Luke Cutting.

"We ask a lot of our tackles because we want to be physical and then we have to also have some finesse in pass protection," says Singler. "I think those guys through five games have really held together, especially on the edge of our offensive line where people generally attack them with smaller, quicker athletes. They've done an outstanding job, as has the whole offensive line."

After struggling in their opening games, the offensive line at North Medford really stepped up last week and allowed the Black Tornado to hold the ball for 28 minutes and 53 seconds in the 48-minute win over the Axemen. Colin Sowers scrapped for 68 yards on 19 carries and Gage Jacobson added 51 yards on seven carries to help spur along North's stagnant run game.

"We have to build on last week where we were able to run the football and control the clock," says Olson. "I think our kids came away from that game realizing if we can do that we're giving ourselves chances to win every time."

Each team has been affected by flu-like symptoms in the days leading up to tonight's game — with North having to cancel practice on Tuesday — but neither team expects to be without the services of too many key players.

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