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Facing McNary, Black Tornado gets back to basics

North Medford doesn’t have to win Friday night against McNary to solidify its state playoff status; all that comes in a week when the Black Tornado wraps up Southwest Conference play against Willamette.

But when you carry a 2-5 record with turnover-prone tendencies, there’s no time like the present for head coach Mike Mitchell and company to turn things around as the regular season nears completion.

“I think this is an important game for us just because of the momentum thing,” said Mitchell. “We’ve got to start winning here and feeling good about ourselves. It gets tough this time of year if you’re not winning.”

Suffice it to say, North Medford has spent more time this week looking inward to shore things up for a late-season surge than game-planning for the Celtics (5-2), who stand third in a tight Greater Valley Conference race with West Salem and Sprague.

“Our problems are real obvious: We’ve got to not turn the ball over,” said Mitchell, whose team has shouldered a minus-9 turnover ratio — 20 overall — that has created an uphill climb in nearly every game this season. “We’re trying to spend a lot of time on keeping our guys out of trouble offensively this week.”

That’s not to say North Medford is overlooking McNary, quite the contrary. In studying the Salem-area squad, which lost 38-17 to the Black Tornado last year, Mitchell said McNary’s defensive capabilities and blossoming running game will be a challenge.

“They’re pretty quick getting to the hole and getting to daylight,” Mitchell said of McNary’s leading ground-gainers. “We’re going to have to get off our blocks and play good solid defense. On defense, they’re just a swarming bunch and they give you a mixture of fronts you’ve got to prepare for.”

In Friday’s other games of interest, South Medford plays at Sheldon with a likely SWC title on the line, while Grants Pass is host to South Eugene. At the 5A level, Eagle Point is home against No. 3 Churchill, Crater plays at North Eugene and Ashland travels to take on No. 7 Thurston.

The final 4A regular season games Friday will be pivotal, with Phoenix, Mazama and Henley all tied atop the Skyline Conference.

Should each team win to force a three-way tie, by virtue of an Azzi Plan tiebreaker, Mazama gets the league’s No. 1 seed to the playoffs, Phoenix would be second and Henley third. Any two-way tie would be settled by head-to-head results. The Pirates close out at Klamath Union.

In 3A action, Cascade Christian and St. Mary’s square off Friday at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Leading the charge for McNary has been sophomore quarterback Erik Barker and sophomore running back Junior Walling, who has been complemented in the backfield by senior Freddy Jimna and junior Robert Benson.

Last week in a 16-8 win over West Albany, Barker completed 20 of 27 passes for 215 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and Walling helped set the tone with 97 yards rushing on 27 carries. Walling scored both TDs, a 1-yard run and 24-yard reception.

Defensively, North Medford has fared well in spurts but has not been able to put together a complete game, although a lot of that has had to do with the Tornado’s turnover issues. North is allowing 394 yards per game but has availed itself well against the likes of Sheldon and, most recently, Grants Pass in last week’s 34-14 loss.

Senior Jonathinn Casaday and juniors Eli Spence and Tony Bench have applied good pressure from the defensive line, while junior Thomas Bates played well at middle linebacker last week. Sophomore Owen Grafton and seniors Tyler Evans and Vicente Borja and junior Anthony Taylor have anchored the secondary.

“Our defense is a little more bend-than-break than we normally like to be but they’ve shown some pretty good resiliency,” said Mitchell. “I feel like we’re getting there but we can’t expect them to play short-field football. If we can keep a long field and let them play with no turnovers, we have enough talent to be a competitive team. We’ve just shot ourselves in the foot.”

Senior quarterback Josh Robbins has been sensational at times but also has been snakebitten by bad luck, miscommunication on routes and overzealousness to make plays in tight windows. Robbins has completed 92 of 183 passes for 1,417 yards, 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

“He played really well against Roseburg, so it’s not like it’s that far removed from where he showed that he can do the things he has to do,” said Mitchell, “but he has 14 picks, and that’s just way, way high. He’s a talented quarterback that has a pretty strong arm, but he’s got to make good decisions and we’ve got to help him make good decisions.”

Robbins spent the bulk of this week going back to the basics, and the senior leader hopes to be aided by a running game that will feature Spence a little more than it has. Part of that is due to a still-healing Isaac Manuel, who injured his ankle last week against GP, and part of it is just about putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands as much as possible.

“We think Spence is a heck of an athlete,” said Mitchell. “He’s a guy we think we need to get the ball in his hands a little bit more than we’ve been by throwing it to him.”

Spence leads the SWC with 583 yards receiving and four TDs on 30 catches, with Evans not far off the pace at 363 yards and eight scores on 26 catches.

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

Casaday