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South, North aim to end on high note

Last Friday was a night to forget for South Medford and one to cherish for North Medford.

How each responds tonight to the emotional highs and lows experienced on the football field may go far in determining the final breakdown in the Southwest Conference standings.

The Panthers have had a week to deal with the insult and injury of being stunned at Roseburg, 48-7. The host Indians dominated the game to pin the first league loss on South Medford and drop the Panthers (6-2, 3-1 SWC) from No. 3 to No. 8 in the Class 6A state rankings.

"We didn't meet Roseburg's energy at all in any phase of the game," says South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "When you play a team like Roseburg and you don't meet that physical competition and energy, they can take it to you and they did."

Making matters worse, senior quarterback Josh Milhollin injured his foot early in the game and has spent the better part of this week rehabbing the sprain in hopes of playing tonight when South wraps up the regular season at top-ranked Sheldon (8-0, 4-0). Although not 100 percent, Milhollin expects to give it a go in hopes of earning a share of a second straight SWC title.

"He can move on it," says Singler. "It's more about pain than anything. We'll just have to see what he can handle once he gets out there and the adrenaline kicks in and all that."

While the Panthers face a formidable challenge in the Irish, North Medford (5-3, 2-2) is tasked with hosting a Roseburg team that is as hot as any in the state. The Black Tornado, however, is brimming with confidence after securing the program's first bid to the state playoffs since 2005 with last week's 19-14 win over Grants Pass.

"What I've cautioned our kids against is not viewing the season as a success and let's just close the book on it because we're in the playoffs and be satisfied with that," says North Medford head coach Jeff Olson. "I think it's vital we go into the playoffs on a roll. There's still a lot to play for and I think the kids realize that."

Adding to the intrigue tonight is the fact that a North Medford win could vault the Black Tornado from the SWC's No. 4 seed to potentially as high as No. 2. Wins by North and Sheldon would force a coin flip to break the three-way tie for second place.

A similar coin flip for the No. 1 seed would be needed if South and Roseburg win tonight.

The Irish expect to be on their game tonight as they seek to reclaim their standing as the SWC's top team. After winning the first two league crowns, Sheldon was denied a three-peat when South Medford edged the Irish in a thrilling — and somewhat controversial — game at Spiegelberg Stadium. Officials ruled that a last-ditch scoring effort by Sheldon was incomplete because the football bounced before being trapped in the arms of standout receiver John Campbell.

"I think our kids are excited about playing them again," says Sheldon head coach Marty Johnson. "They felt disappointed by the way things turned out last year in the league, but South Medford earned it on the field. We've put ourselves in a position where, if we can take care of things (today), we've earned (the title) outright and that's a big source of pride for us."

Sheldon boasts 23 seniors — the largest such class in Johnson's 13 years at the school — and few weaknesses. The Irish average 508 yards and 52 points on offense, and allow just under 16 points and 310 yards per game. They also boast a plus-14 turnover ratio.

"This might be his best team I've seen since we've been playing them," Singler says of Johnson's Irish. "They've got all the components."

Jordan Johnson is staking his claim as the top quarterback in the state with 1,997 yards passing and 30 touchdowns to only one interception. Besides completing 104 of his 141 attempts, the fleet-footed senior has also run for 652 yards and eight TDs.

Johnson already has scholarship offers from Army, Air Force, Montana and Portland State, but his coach — and father — says no decision on his future will be made until after the season.

Tailback Cameron Abeene ranks second in the SWC with 707 yards rushing and nine scores on 72 carries, while Campbell leads the league with 44 catches for 1,020 yards and 16 TDs. The Irish also boast University of Oregon recruit Curtis White, who is a standout defensive lineman and has also hauled in 18 passes for 292 yards and seven scores.

"Offensively they are every bit as good as advertised," says Singler. "They score from distance, they score on drives, they make plays when things break down. They're scary."

Beyond the level of talent, a key to Sheldon's success has been its ability to get off to good starts and put teams away early.

"We've been fortunate and done that in all of our games but at some point we've got to realize that's not always going to happen," adds Johnson. "South Medford has a proven quarterback in Milhollin who helped his team win a championship and proven players that are very good and we know it. They're the team to beat as far as I'm concerned and as far as how we've been preparing. They've got the prize that we want the most. It's going to be fun to play a championship-level game prior to the playoffs starting."

The Panthers will again be without the services of linebacker Austin Randall, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, and fellow linebacker Nathan Thornton, who was also hurt in that game and tried in vain to play last week.

North Medford was able to overcome the loss of two key performers last week in seniors Colin Sowers and Jake Hernandez. Junior Hector Alvarez stepped up for the second straight week to give the Tornado a boost in the backfield, while senior Zach Willits and juniors Gage Jacobson and Roger Keller stepped up on defense.

Seniors Cory Haggans, Steven Petersen, Robert Ross and Mark Dickison continue to lead North Medford's surge on defense, and will be put to the test tonight with Roseburg's veer option attack spearheaded by tailback Josh Weaver, fullback Lucas Corder and quarterback Thaddeus Davis. The No. 9-ranked Indians rolled up 321 yards rushing and 507 yards of total offense against a previously stout Panther defense a week ago.

Alvarez's ability to keep the chains moving may provide a key for North, which will look to keep the Roseburg offense off the field as much as possible. Alvarez got a slow start to the season thanks to a hamstring injury — even serving as the team's cameraman during road trips to Reynolds and McMinnville — before moving to JV and, recently, varsity action.

His fresh legs have allowed Alvarez to climb to second on the team with 160 rushing yards on 33 carries the past two weeks.

"It's a tribute and testimony to his work ethic and desire," says Olson of the late-season emergence. "He just goes full speed, runs north and south and has great vision."

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