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Tornado, Cavemen embrace chance to shine

Friday's matchup between North Medford and Grants Pass may not carry the glamour of some Southwest Conference football games this season, but its importance to each program will rival any on the docket.

Each team will step into Mel Ingram Field in Grants Pass with similar 1-4 records, as well as the confidence of knowing that a second victory is certainly attainable.

Tack on the reality that it's still Black Tornado versus Cavemen — a rivalry that boasts a storied tradition — and there's plenty of excitement to be had when these two face off Friday night.

"Anytime we play a Medford school there's a level of excitement about it," says Grants Pass head coach John Musser. "I think they're a sleeping giant. They have kids all over the place that can erupt any Friday night, and we just don't want it to be this Friday night."

Of the two teams, only North Medford has already claimed a SWC triumph, doing so two weeks ago at South Eugene. That said, the Cavemen have hung with the likes of Thurston, Sheldon and Roseburg in recent weeks before having the walls cave in at some point.

"Grants Pass is not a bad football team, they just haven't caught many breaks," says North Medford head coach Nate Becksted. "I think they're a lot better than their record. They've played a tough schedule, like us, and they've played some really good teams pretty close for a while."

In Friday's other SWC games, No. 3 South Medford plays host to Thurston at Spiegelberg Stadium, Crater is at top-ranked Sheldon and No. 6 Roseburg will look to get back on track at South Eugene.

While success hasn't really shown itself on the scoreboard for the Cavemen (1-4, 0-3 SWC), Musser's crew has had plenty of positives to keep plugging away in hopes of a late-season run. From a season-opening 13-3 loss to No. 8 Tualatin to solid starts against its aforementioned league foes, Grants Pass has shown promise but not enough consistency to put it all together for 48 minutes.

"We've played some tough teams and persevered and there hasn't been any quit," says Musser. "The way the OSAA has all this set up, we still feel like we have our best football yet to play. We're still chipping away at it and I still think we'll be there come Week 9."

The linebacker corps has provided the most consistent presence for the Cavemen, led by outside linebackers Alex Albright and Garrett Meadows and inside linebackers Chad Lowe and Steven Etheridge.

"They just know where to be," Becksted says of the leaders of GP's 3-4 defensive scheme. "They're good at it and they're not going to give you anything. We're going to have to sustain some drives against them if we're going to get anywhere."

Where Grants Pass has struggled the most this season is on special teams, where costly miscues have turned into instant points for the opposition, and on offense, where the Cavemen are averaging only 10 points per game.

Injuries and illness have cost GP in recent weeks, with starting linemen Patrick Powell and Kyle Miller joining teammates Logan Dean and Anthony Mattie on the sidelines last week against Thurston. Powell — the team's top lineman — came down with the flu the night before the big game, while a tweaked back cost Miller his center spot. Mattie and Dean were out due to injury.

Powell and Mattie expect to return Friday, with Miller and Dean still question marks.

The loss of Dean, who injured his knee two weeks ago against Sheldon, certainly put a crimp into the offense. The senior entered last week ranked sixth among SWC runners with 249 yards on 63 carries. To offset the loss, Musser moved Albright from H-back to tailback — where he played the last two years.

North Medford (1-4, 1-2) hasn't had to make as many moves in recent weeks beyond altering its approach to simplify things a little more. The hope has been that scaling things back will allow their natural athleticism to take over, and each week has brought varying degrees of increased success.

"At this point for us, it's about how good can we be in the next five weeks," says Becksted. "I think we're getting better at the line of scrimmage and hopefully that's going to show in the next couple weeks."

The all-around contributions of quarterback Zach Tanner, who has run for 287 yards and thrown for 802 more, and big-play ability of seniors Darren Cossette, Mario Saldana and Jordan Browne-Moore have caught Musser's attention.

"They've got some tremendous athletes and the type of offense that can be explosive in any second with that Tanner at quarterback, especially," says Musser. "He's a stud and the real deal athletically, and anytime you have kids their size up front, you can line up and mow people over if you wanted."

Becksted says he's been pleased to see the progress shown in the trenches, especially from the likes of seniors Jordan Sparks, Mitch Lesh, C.J. Reyes and Mack Clark, and confident his team is beginning to build steam after its early-season struggles.

When the teams met last year, they combined to score on five of the eight possessions in the first half before having the contest determined by a pair of fourth-quarter field goals by Cossette. Those kicks provided the only scoring in the final 24 minutes of a 33-28 win by North Medford, and made Tanner a winner in his first varsity start.

The squads exchanged leads four times and combined for 35 points in the first quarter last year, with Albright amassing 97 yards rushing and returning quarterback Hunter Rich passing for 109 yards to pace the Cavemen.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry