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Making a final push

Finding the right motivation for teams that have already locked up a berth in the state playoffs can be challenging in the last game of the regular season, but that won’t be the case Friday for North Medford and Sheldon.

The fifth-ranked Irish saw their string of Southwest Conference championships end at four last year thanks to an answered prayer by North Medford inside the final minute of their stunning matchup.

They’ll be looking for revenge Friday on the Spiegelberg Stadium artificial turf.

The sixth-ranked Black Tornado used last year’s stunning upset to springboard toward its first conference title since 2005 and revive the ballyhooed days of the program.

North Medford will be looking to prove none of that was a fluke on Friday.

“This is obviously one of the biggest games of the year,” said North Medford senior receiver/cornerback Tristen Holmes. “This game, if we win, will hopefully propel us through the playoffs and whoever loses will be set back a little bit.”

“For us, this is a really big statement game,” he added. “This game kinda does set the tone for the playoffs so it really is a playoff game when it comes down to it, especially with the level of teams that are in it. We’ve just got to take it like it’s one-and-done from now on.”

Barring another dramatic upset when third-ranked Grants Pass (8-0, 6-0 SWC) plays host to Willamette (1-7, 1-5) in its regular-season finale, North Medford and Sheldon will each wrap up the season outside of first place. The Black Tornado and Irish each stand 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the SWC, but playoff positioning can be crucial for Friday’s winner. North Medford is eighth in the Oregon School Activities Association power rankings and Sheldon is sixth, with the top eight seeds earning homefield advantage at least through the first two playoff rounds.

“They’ve been the powerhouse the last few years,” Holmes said of Sheldon. “It’s just nice being on the same level as them. They still are ahead of us in all the rankings, though, so it’d be nice to get them again.”

It was Holmes who came up with the go-ahead score one year ago when he got behind the defense and hauled in a perfectly placed throw from quarterback Troy Fowler for a 65-yard touchdown with 41 seconds to play. Fowler passed for two TDs in the final 6 ½ minutes to help his team rally for a 21-17 triumph.

While last year’s squad entered the game against Sheldon with optimism, this year’s cast carries considerably more confidence knowing that the task – no matter how great – is still possible against another great Irish team.

“Our kids believe they can beat Sheldon,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, “and yet we’re also not naïve enough to know that they have a helluva program rolling in. But if we play like we did last week (in a 49-22 win over South Medford), we’ll be fine.”

Mitchell’s team has won 12 straight games at Spiegelberg Stadium and a 13th certainly would be nice, but the third-year coach doesn’t believe it’s an all-or-nothing situation for his Black Tornado.

“It’s going to be a big game and yet we’re not about to put our whole season on any one game,” he said. “We just need to keep getting better, and so far we really are getting better every game. I feel real good about this team’s chances in the playoffs. We’re a much better team than we were last year at this time, we really are. I think our kids are motivated to see how far we can go.”

For Sheldon, at least on offense, it all starts with senior quarterback Kellen Strahm. The 6-foot, 184-pound dynamo assumed control of the team when junior QB Justin Herbert was lost for the season in a Week 3 loss to Grants Pass. Under Strahm’s direction, the Irish have seemingly been more dangerous thanks to his quick feet and playmaking ability in the pocket.

“They obviously are stacked at the running positions now with Kellen back there,” said Holmes. “He is one of the most shifty players in the state so it’s going to be a big challenge to contain him this week.”

Strahm has rushed for 726 yards and 11 TDs on 56 carries and is an effective passer, becoming more comfortable in that area as time has gone by to complete 42 of 56 passes for 688 yards, five TDs and one interception.

“We have to stop the quarterback,” said Mitchell. “They’re just another team if you stop him. The guy’s obviously a great athlete so we’ve just got to contain him and not give up big plays to him. Our defense is working hard at that and that’s what’s going to be the key to the game. People have been letting him run around getting 70 or 90-yard runs on little zone plays where he tucks the ball and goes through the gap and is gone. You’ve got to know where he is at all times.”

Sheldon is racking up 506.6 yards and 46.6 points per game thus far on offense, with running back Logan Comer providing a nice complement to Strahm by running for 755 yards and 13 TDs on 87 carries. Carson Clevenger (39 carries for 270 yards and three TDs) has also had an impact in recent weeks.

Strahm was Sheldon’s leading receiver when he moved to the backfield but Dillon French (12 catches for 335 yards and four TDs), Isaiah Cartwright (15 catches for 276 yards and three TDs) and Pavel Specht (13 catches for 201 yards and two TDs) are dependable targets.

North Medford counters with a defense that’s allowing only 290.4 yards and 18.5 points per game, with sophomore tackle Tre Holmes playing well beyond his years on the line to complement senior Skyler Black. The Black Tornado’s linebacker corps of Nick Janakes, Edmund Polataivao and Will Spence also stand to be busy trying to slow Sheldon’s scheme.

Offensively, North Medford is averaging 415.4 yards and 46.5 points per game thus far, with Fowler, Janakes and Holmes atop the SWC rankings for passing, rushing and receiving, respectively. Fowler has completed 122 of 180 passes for 1,938 yards, 23 TDs and only three interceptions, while Janakes has run for 991 yards and 18 scores on 130 carries and Holmes has caught 37 passes for 653 yards and nine TDs.

Spence provides a nice complement at fullback with 184 yards and two TDs on 27 carries to go with nine catches for 202 yards and one score. The junior also turned last week’s game against South Medford with his 70-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Fowler has a wealth of options on the perimeter in Josh Hansen (21 catches for 325 yards and six TDs), Jared Evans (15 catches for 218 yards and five TDs), Tucker Barry (11 catches for 123 yards and two TDs) and Jacob Moore (six catches for 109 yards).

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

North Medford senior Tristen Holmes, shown using a stiff arm to get free last week against South Medford, is the Southwest Conference's leading receiver with 653 yards on 37 catches. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.