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Ready to Rumble

With seemingly all eyes statewide trained on Friday’s matchup between third-ranked North Medford and No. 4 Grants Pass, the message from the respective coaches to their teams has been simple.

Enjoy it.

The Black Tornado and Cavemen each enter the matchup undefeated at 5-0 overall and 3-0 in Southwest Conference play, and it’s been more than 20 years since anything similar has played out.

North Medford burst back on the scene a year ago to claim the SWC title, but that was on the heels of going winless in 2011 and 2-8 in 2012. Grants Pass sported back-to-back 2-8 campaigns in 2009 and ’10 before modest gains in 2011 (4-7) and 2012 (3-7) brought the Cavemen to a 7-4 finish one year ago.

“It’s a neat chance and I’ve reminded the kids many times to make sure to stop and breathe the air in and look around,” said Grants Pass head coach John Musser, “because those years when we were 2-8 and wondering what the heck we’re doing, we’ve worked our way out of that thanks to them.”

The same scenario exists at North Medford, which is a year ahead of GP in terms of rising among the state’s elite Class 6A programs and hopes to use that to its advantage on Friday when the teams square off at 7 p.m. at Mel Ingram Field.

“There’s a lot of stuff in the papers about Grants Pass but we won the conference last year and so far haven’t done much to prove different this year,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. “I’ve told the kids all week that I want them to enjoy it but I want them to go into this game like we’re conference champions and they have to take it away from us.”

Both programs carry a one-game lead in the SWC standings over sixth-ranked Sheldon (4-1, 2-1), but a win over North Medford would put Grants Pass in the driver’s seat for its conference championship since 1994. The Cavemen already own a 38-34 win over Sheldon, which plays at North Medford on Oct. 31 and lost the last time those teams met at Spiegelberg Stadium.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s the fast track to being league champs,” said Musser, who’s in his seventh year at the helm, of a win Friday. “That’s not a goal that we’ve talked about at all — we don’t really set those type of goals — we talk mostly about each Friday night, but this is the one that we know is the best way to go about it. In my 18 years here, we’ve never won a conference championship. I’ve never had one single game where it’s, OK, win this and the league championship is right there for the taking.”

The magnitude of the game is certainly not lost on North Medford, although Mitchell is quick to note there are still plenty of big games still to come for his Black Tornado. The third-year head coach, however, definitely saw the potential for a big matchup coming against Grants Pass well before the season.

“We thought they would be pretty good and we thought we would be pretty good so we knew this would be coming down the road,” said Mitchell. “Whoever wins this certainly has the inside track for the Southwest Conference championship. It’s not a given, but it definitely would go a long ways toward that.”

Making the matchup so intriguing is the wealth of athletic talent available on each side of the ball for each squad. Grants Pass leads the SWC with 540 yards of total offense per game, while North Medford is the league leader in total defense (216.4 yards allowed), scoring offense (51.6 points), scoring defense (14.4 points) and turnover ratio (plus 11).

The Black Tornado ranks third in the SWC at 408.2 yards per game, while the Cavemen are second in the SWC in total defense (271.8 yards allowed), scoring offense (46.6 points) and scoring defense (20.2 points).

“It’s two teams that have a lot of depth but schematically we’re much different,” said Musser. “The similarities really come in having athletes at every level. We don’t rely on certainly one athlete and neither do they.”

The marquee position of quarterback is well-handled on both sides, with North Medford’s Troy Fowler returning as the reigning SWC offensive player of the year and GP’s Javan Appling proving he should be in that conversation this time around.

Fowler, who hasn’t seen much action beyond a series or two in the third quarter for the last three weeks, has completed 62 of 88 passes for 1,019 yards and 15 touchdowns against zero interceptions.

“He’s the trigger guy and the catalyst definitely for everything they do,” said Musser. “He’s the kid that almost singlehandedly last year beat us. I thought we had a great game plan stopping (tailback Nick Janakes) last year but then Fowler just killed us on the edge with his athleticism. Keeping him contained and doing our part to stop Janakes from pounding the ball inside will definitely be a goal of ours.”

Janakes leads the SWC in rushing with 680 yards and 12 touchdowns on 76 carries. He’s been allowed steady running lanes thanks to the efforts of linemen Blaine Marshall, Zak Kuitert, Brandon Bueoy, Calvinn Casaday and Jeremy Sparks.

Appling is a returning starter whom Musser calls “another coach on the field,” thanks to his understanding of the offense and his ability to run quickly through his progressions. Appling leads the SWC with 1,382 passing yards on 82-for-117 passing with 12 TDs and three interceptions.

The 6-foot-2, 203-pounder has also run 42 times for 169 yards to keep teams honest and take pressure off GP’s workhorses in the backfield, running backs Zac Hannan and Ben Dean. Hannan ranks third in the SWC with 595 yards rushing on 75 carries with six TDs, while Dean has toted the rock 62 times for 249 yards and eight TDs.

“They mix it up real well and they’re hitting on all cylinders on offense, just like we are right now, so it should be an interesting game,” said Mitchell. “They’ve got a couple running backs who really run hard and a quarterback who’s playing at a pretty good level. It’s kind of an interesting matchup, where we’re good, they’re good and vice versa.”

The perimeter play for each team is outstanding, with North Medford’s Tristen Holmes ranking second in the SWC in receiving yards (17 catches for 392 yards and six TDs) while Grants Pass boasts three of the SWC’s top targets in JC McKinley (18 catches for 335 yards and three TDs), Keegan Weiss (11 catches for 248 yards and two TDs) and Kirkland Meadows (nine catches for 205 yards and two TDs).

The Black Tornado hasn’t passed the football as much but Josh Hansen (11 catches for 132 yards and four TDs) and Jared Evans (10 catches for 107 yards and three TDs) are dependable targets.

As with any game, Musser believes it will come down to the work in the trenches, and his Cavemen are coming off an impressive showing against South Medford where they allowed only seven first downs.

“Against South Medford, our defensive line performance was of epic proportions,” said Musser. “It was probably the best defensive line performance we’ve had in six or seven years. If we could win that battle with North, that would go a long way toward winning Friday.”

Special teams may be a bigger factor than previously expected after North Medford senior Isaac Grether suffered what’s believed to be an anterior-cruciate ligament tear in his left knee. Grether has been pivotal in his roles as fullback and at linebacker, but even more important on special teams with his kickoffs and placekicking duties. The Black Tornado has a capable backup in junior Will Spence on offense and defense, but is still in the process of determining a game plan for special teams.

On the flip side, Moges Dinkins (five field goals, 30 extra-point kicks) has been a reliable weapon for GP since he began splitting time between soccer and football.

Grants Pass and North Medford were each unbeaten when they squared off early in the season in 1992 and ’93 but, not counting the Medford High years, Friday’s matchup will be the latest the two teams have come into a meeting undefeated.

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

North Medford senior Nick Janakes leads the Southwest Conference in rushing with 680 yards and 12 touchdowns on 76 carries. MT FILE PHOTO