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Comeback win spurs North’s hopes

North Medford’s football team has had to dig its heels in plenty this season, but last Friday something different happened when that opportunity arose: the Black Tornado also pushed back.

Facing a 24-6, third-quarter deficit against Roseburg in a must-win game should North Medford entertain any state playoff hopes, the Black Tornado rallied in remarkable fashion to secure a 30-27 overtime victory.

North Medford senior Vicente Borja gave his team a huge lift with a 98-yard kickoff return for a score to get the ball rolling and then senior Josh Robbins added three touchdown passes, including a second to senior Tyler Evans that supplied the 21-yard game-clincher in overtime.

“It was 24-6 and it seemed a little like maybe we aren’t going to be able to bust loose here at all,” said North head coach Mike Mitchell, “but in the second half they really came back and played well.”

“One of the things we talked about at halftime is that some of this isn’t X’s and 0’s, it’s heart,” added the coach, “and I thought they played with heart the second half. We don’t know how far that will carry us right now but we really felt good about how we played, more than the score even.”

The Black Tornado moved to 2-4 overall and 2-2 in Southwest Conference play with the comeback, inching closer to securing the league’s fourth and final automatic bid to the state playoffs.

North Medford will look to continue its progression on Friday when it plays host to Grants Pass (4-2, 2-1 SWC), which was within six points of No. 6 South Medford in the fourth quarter last week before falling 40-21.

In Friday’s other games of local interest, South Medford plays at Roseburg, Crater is host to Ashland for its homecoming and Eagle Point is at North Eugene.

At the 4A level, Phoenix has a key Skyline Conference clash at home against No. 6 Henley, while 3A Southern Cascade League play finally opens with Lakeview at Cascade Christian at U.S. Cellular Community Park and St. Mary’s at Illinois Valley.

“Roseburg was a big win and we need to take three weeks here and keep rolling, period,” said Mitchell. “And if we do, we’ll be in the playoffs and that gives you a little more playing time and all that helps the whole picture. Our goal right now is to just keep getting better and be realistic.”

Reality will come at North in full force Friday in the form of a Grants Pass squad that has high hopes not only for the SWC race but for a steady playoff run. The Cavemen rank second in the SWC at 374 yards of total offense per game and still pack quite a punch on defense despite allowing 409 yards per game thus far.

“This will be a physical game,” said Mitchell. “Grants Pass is well-coached and they play hard. When I was there coaching, it amazed me because you’d have a little kid, 5-7 and 130 pounds, but he just plays like hell. That’s what they do.”

“I know they’ve had a tough couple weeks themselves and it’s going to take a super effort for our guys to beat them,” he added, “but I think they’re also not quite the caliber of the Sheldons and South Medfords. If we play like we did in the second half (against Roseburg), we can play with anybody so that’s what we have to do this week.”

Grants Pass played without SWC-leading rusher Vince Washington last week after he was sidelined by a sprained medial-collateral ligament. Washington will likely be a gametime decision this week, with fellow senior Victor Ruiz more than capable of shouldering the load should the need arise again.

Quarterback Blain Hobbs, a 5-foot-8, 140-pound junior, has a good handle on the GP offense and has proven to be more dynamic with his scrambling ability and speed. Hobbs averages 3.8 yards per carry and has shown a knack for stringing out plays in order to dial up passes to leading receivers Tayler Phillips, Korbin Lopez and Niko Phillips to the tune of 773 yards on 74-for-136 passing with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Tayler Phillips has caught 28 passes for 392 yards and six scores, while Lopez has 18 receptions for 183 yards and three TDs and Niko Phillips 13 catches for 175 yards and two scores.

Borja’s special teams touchdown was really what set North Medford off last week and gave rise to a potential comeback.

“That was a great return and on it there were about six guys getting great blocks,” said Mitchell. “It wasn’t just one guy, it was an efforted thing so I felt good about that.”

Borja has also caught 13 passes for 218 yards to complement junior Eli Spence (24 catches, 435 yards, four TDs) and Evans (22 catches, 306 yards, seven TDs). Spence has shifted more to the backfield in recent weeks to help Isaac Manuel give the ground game a push, and Evans’ leadership on both sides of the ball has been key to keeping the team competitive each week.

After North missed out on ending the game in Roseburg in regulation with a missed extra point following a fourth-quarter Manuel score, Evans wasn’t about to leave anything to doubt in overtime.

“He caught that slant and there was just no way he wasn’t going to get into the end zone,” Mitchell said of the game-winning play. “It was a great, great effort to win that game.”

SOUTH MEDFORD AT ROSEBURG: Sixth-ranked South Medford will need to refrain from peeking one week ahead to a marquee matchup with top-ranked Sheldon and focus on a Roseburg team that has shown marked improvement with each week.

Quarterback Collin Warmouth was thrown to the wolves last year but continues to grow in his role with Roseburg (2-4, 1-3 SWC), completing 20 of 25 passes for 156 yards and one TD while also running 18 times for 94 yards and two scores against North Medford. Interceptions have been an issue thus far for Warmouth, but he has a capable lead target in Garrett Russell at receiver and a running option in the backfield in Doran Gillispie, who ranks fourth in the SWC with 440 yards and three TDs on 124 carries.

Roseburg’s defense has allowed only 256 yards per game with 11 takeaways so Panthers QB Robbie Patterson will need to be on his toes in guiding the South Medford (5-1, 3-0) attack. Patterson tied a school record with six TD passes the last time he played at Finlay Field and has completed 81 of 119 passes for 1,198 yards, 16 TDs and three interceptions through six weeks.

South Medford senior Jaylin Parnell ranks third in SWC rushing with 509 yards and 10 TDs on 89 carries to go with 18 catches for 204 yards and three scores.

Senior Josiah Johnson stepped up against GP with one of his top receiving efforts of the season and will look to continue trying to fill the void left by the absence of senior playmaker Kaleb Franklin, who had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ACL suffered Sept. 15 against Willamette and is lost for the season.

Franklin’s loss is an unfortunate blow to the Panthers’ title hopes given his all-SWC play as a slot receiver and cornerback. As one of the school’s top competitors, Franklin’s impact on the game has been notable since his sophomore year in football, basketball and track and field.

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