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Optimism fills the air for North, South

Rivalry games are always fun simply for bragging rights, but when a rivalry truly takes life is when both teams enter the football stadium with realistic expectations of coming out on top.

While that hasn't always been the case in recent years, that's exactly the atmosphere for tonight's 28th annual Black and Blue Game pitting No. 5 North Medford against South Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium.

The Black Tornado will be playing as the visitor this year and the Panthers are on the home side of the stadium.

"We're certainly going to be in it this year, we weren't last year," said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team used a last-second field goal to avoid being shut out in his first try against the Panthers.

While South Medford takes a record six-game series winning streak into the 7 p.m. clash, North Medford holds the overall lead, 14-13, and can add to a breakthrough season by clinching at least a share of the Southwest Conference title with a victory.

"No question about it, this has been a real fast mental turnaround for the kids," said Mitchell, referring to a lackluster outing last week against South Eugene. "They're going into this game thinking it's for the conference championship. They're not hoping anymore, they think they can compete and that's where you want them to be."

North Medford (6-1, 5-0 SWC) has been outscored 125-10 in the past three meetings with South Medford (2-5, 2-3), which has plenty to play for tonight in a year that's been hampered by injuries and illness.

"A couple breaks here and there and we're not 2-5," said Panthers head coach Bill Singler. "I think we're a little better football team than our record indicates, we just have to fight through and keep playing hard and good things will happen."

"I've even said when we've played North in the past, when maybe they weren't playing as well," added Singler, "that you throw the records out of the window for this game. It's an intense game and very emotional for the students and the fans and there's a lot of pride on the line. We've had some games that haven't been close in years past but usually it seems to be a pretty competitive game."

North Medford takes a six-game winning streak into the contest and ranks among the top two SWC teams in total offense (424.3 yards per game), total defense (324.3 ypg), scoring offense (33.9 points per game), scoring defense (22 ppg) and turnover ratio (plus 9).

Still, it's hard for the Black Tornado faithful to act as the favored team considering recent history.

"I don't really think of it like we're the favorites," said North Medford junior quarterback Troy Fowler. "I know they don't think we're the favorites. I feel like they think they're going to come out and beat us and we think we're going to come out and beat them, and that's what makes it the big game it is."

South Medford, which will be celebrating its senior night, ranks among the bottom half of the SWC in all the aforementioned categories but turnover ratio (plus 1). South Medford averages 320.3 yards of total offense and 407 yards of total defense, and on average has been outscored 27.7 points to 25.7.

"We just need to be focused," said South Medford junior quarterback Craig Contreras. "Some games we come in lackadaisical and we don't really come off the ball until the second half. If we come in focused and ready to play, I think we can have a good game."

Each team has enough talented weapons to keep the other honest tonight, and both coaches were complimentary of their opponents.

"I think they're a very good football team for being 2-5," said Mitchell. "We've got the films and we're keeping too busy. They're very capable and we are, too, so I think it's going to be a great football game and it's going to come down to who makes mistakes."

Added Singler: "Mike's done a great job in a short time to get these kids to believe in fundamental football and teamwork and camaraderie. You can see that on film and the enthusiasm they're playing with. It's a much different team than we saw last year — more confident — and a team that's grown up in the year that has a lot of talent."

While Fowler drives the Black Tornado offense, junior tailback Nick Janakes is the engine that makes it run with his blend of physicality and speed in the backfield. Janakes ranks second in the SWC at 811 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on 150 carries and is complemented nicely by fullback Will Spence. Junior Micah Brown also expects to add to the mix after running for 40 yards and a score on only six carries last week.

On the perimeter, North Medford boasts a trio of deep threats in Jared Evans (27 catches for 471 yards and five TDs), Tristen Holmes (23 catches for 441 yards and five TDs) and Eugene Ellis (22 catches for 353 yards and three TDs). Janakes has also leaked out for 237 yards and three scores on 20 catches in the wide-open attack.

"What impresses me is they're spreading the ball around," said Singler. "They have four kids catching the ball consistently, and not only catching it, they're scoring."

"Their skill is outstanding and as good as anybody in our league, obviously," he added. "We know we have our hands full with these guys. That's why it's important for us to execute on offense and finish drives and try to keep them off the field because they're a potent group."

The Black Tornado has definitely been the surprise of the SWC, even in its own camp.

"We didn't think it was going to happen like this," said Fowler. "For things to fall in place like they did and are, it just feels sweet. If we win this game we're conference champions. We haven't been able to say that since 2005, so there's a lot of excitement for this game."

South Medford is the only team other than Sheldon to claim a SWC crown, and a win could help preserve that standing with only two weeks left in the regular season.

Contreras has reliable targets on the outside in Josh Baugh (30 catches for 466 yards and three TDs) and Mark Winans (13 catches for 361 yards and seven TDs), but the Panthers are built on running the football. Seniors Christian Bowley and Anthony Gomez join junior Josh Hall in giving South Medford a continual push up the field.

"I think all three of their guys in the backfield run the ball really hard," said Mitchell. "You've got to meet that head on. We've got to slow down their running game and keep that under check to have a chance at this."

Hall boasts 457 yards and one score on 75 carries to edge Gomez (453 yards and eight TDs on 48 carries) for the team lead, while Bowley will be in his third game back from an ankle injury and has totaled 194 yards and one score on 46 carries.

If it comes down to it, South Medford has another key weapon in reserve with senior place-kicker Riley Williams, who has battled his own injury woes this year. His 45-yard field goal helped send last week's game at Grants Pass into overtime as time expired. His five field goals rank second in the league behind GP's Moges Dinkins, who has nine.

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