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No. 8 North takes show on the road

What’s in a name? In the case of Jesuit High School, a whole bunch.

The Crusaders have been a fixture among the top football teams in Oregon’s largest classification in recent history, winning three of their five state titles since 2000 and advancing at least as far as the state semifinals for six straight seasons.

The history of Jesuit’s football program is undeniable and carries complete respect among the North Medford faithful. But for a Black Tornado team that approaches everything one game at a time, North Medford doesn’t have to compete with history, it just has to compete with the fifth-ranked Crusaders on Friday night in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

“Once you get past the name, it really is just two teams,” said North Medford senior quarterback Troy Fowler. “You think of Jesuit, they’ve always been a powerhouse and they still are a powerhouse, but we’re the Black Tornado, too, so they’ve got to respect us also. We’re pretty evenly matched so it’ll be fun.”

Eighth-ranked North Medford and Jesuit each enter the playoff game with 8-2 records, and each with narrow losses to No. 4 Sheldon. The Crusaders’ only other loss came in a 24-17 setback in the season opener against No. 1 Central Catholic, while the Black Tornado’s other loss was at No. 3 Grants Pass.

“Those losses have really checked us and showed us where we’re at,” said Fowler, “but if you look at those two losses against top five teams in the state, we could’ve easily won those games, too. It was a blessing in disguise to put us in check and prepare us for the playoffs.”

Fowler led the charge in last week’s 41-7, first round win over Wilson by completing 22 of 31 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. His effort, along with key runs by Nick Janakes and Will Spence, helped complement a defense that allowed 235 yards of total offense by the Trojans.

The challenge Friday in Beaverton will definitely be greater for North Medford, but the Black Tornado isn’t trying to blow it out of proportion.

“There’s about 10 teams that I think can win it this year, and we’re one of them,” said North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell, whose team advanced to the state quarterfinals last season. “Central Catholic at the moment might be a step up and it would take a really good effort to beat them, but the rest of them are a clump of teams. Jesuit’s not going to be any tougher than Sheldon was or tougher than Grants Pass, and those are two games that we were in them. It’s not going to be any tougher, it’s just going to be that type of game for us, and we’ll have to meet the challenge.”

It all starts in the trenches for Jesuit, which lost 38-28 in last year’s state championship to Central Catholic. The Crusaders boast an impressive offensive line that gets off the ball quickly and provides a steady push for a powerful running game that features senior Chase Morrison, who has run for 1,126 yards and 24 touchdowns, and junior Jason Talley, who carried 10 times for 81 yards and three TDs last week in a 41-14 win over Gresham. Talley is up to 1,012 yards and 14 scores.

“We have to be physical in this game,” said Mitchell. “It’s going to come down to the front lines, both offense and defense, because they’re extremely good at double-teaming and run the power play as good as anybody we’ve seen as far as the off-tackle stuff.”

“They’re tough,” he added. “They really come at you and they’re a physical team, more than anybody we’ve faced probably.”

Jesuit complements that preferred power attack with a crisp passing game guided by junior quarterback Eric Restic, who completed 13 of 28 passes for 319 yards and three TDs to Jordan Happle last week. Restic has passed for 1,866 yards and 21 scores, with Happle serving as his top target at 68 catches for 1,273 yards and 13 TDs.

Happle, a junior defensive back, was also named Metro League defensive player of the year for a Crusaders secondary that includes fellow first-teamers Morrison and junior Zach Houlemard. Senior lineman Nick Miller and junior linebacker Mike Petroff also highlight a Jesuit defense that’s allowing an average of 18.2 points per game.

“They get after the ball,” said Fowler. “They fly around the field and blitz a lot and have guys that can compete, but we also have guys out on the perimeter that compete so it’s going to be who winds up making the plays in the end.”

North Medford senior Tristen Holmes hauled in nine passes for 104 yards and two TDs last week, and Fowler has shown a knack for spreading the ball around all season to a wealth of options in seniors Josh Hansen, Jared Evans, Jacob Moore and junior Tucker Barry.

“We’ve always tried to be balanced on offense,” said Mitchell. “Last week we were a little pass heavy just because of the kind of game it was but we’ve got to be balanced in this game. Troy’s been very effective this year and our receivers have been very effective and that opens things up for the running game. We’ve got to be able to run the football and the clock a little in this one, especially if we get bad weather because it sounds like it may rain up there.”

There is also the possibility of snow.

Janakes has been a steady influence to North Medford’s ground game thus far, scoring two TDs last week to bump his season total to 20. The senior has run for 1,137 yards on 158 carries and been complemented nicely in the backfield by the junior Spence, who ran for a TD last week and is up to 245 yards on 36 carries.

Defensively, Janakes and Spence are joined by senior Edmund Polataivao in spearheading an aggressive, athletic unit that’s allowing an average of 17.6 points and 296.5 yards per game. Senior linemen Calvinn Casaday and Skyler Black join sophomore Tre Holmes in anchoring a front line that continues to gain confidence.

“I think last year our mentality going into the Tigard game is not the same as going up to Jesuit this week,” Fowler said, alluding to last year’s disappointing quarterfinal. “I feel like we got back on track last week and we’re pretty confident going up to Jesuit this year. We’re just excited to keep this going.”

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