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Playoff spot rides on Black and Blue Game

Between Steve Turner and Bill Singler, the football coaches have been involved in nearly every Black and Blue Game since the series began in 1986 after Medford High split into North Medford and South Medford high schools.

Singler is in his 21st season as head coach of the Panthers, while Turner served as defensive coordinator under Rod Rumrey from 1988-97 before returning this fall to take over the Black Tornado as head coach.

Both agree that the 33rd annual matchup between their respective schools Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium will be another exciting clash in a series that has North Medford holding a 17-15 edge, with South Medford winning eight of the past 11.

As has been the case in the past, the Black and Blue Game has also been selected as part of the Great American Rivalry Series, with a champions trophy and college scholarships also awarded as part of the festivities.

“When you have the two big public schools in one town going at it,” said Singler, “it brings out a lot of energy and passion on both sides. Both schools and alumni and everybody gets involved and it becomes a big festival.”

It’s also a game where emotion overrides records or perceived favorites or underdogs.

“It’s a rivalry game, you throw win and loss records out and you go play the game,” said Turner. “That’s what makes high school football so fun and important is these type of games. I know one thing, they’re going to be fired up and ready to play the Black Tornado, and we’ll be excited, too.”

Beyond all the pomp and circumstance, there’s actually a lot riding on Friday’s game for both teams.

Despite taking different paths, each team will enter the stadium bearing 1-2 records in the Southwest Conference and in search of the league’s third and final automatic bid to the Class 6A state playoffs.

With Sheldon (3-1 SWC) and Grants Pass (2-1) already safely in the playoffs — and Roseburg eliminated from a shot at third place at 1-3 — the winner of Friday’s game will gain that coveted automatic bid.

“There’s motivation for both teams, for sure,” said Singler.

South Medford (5-3, 1-2 SWC) is in a much better position with the state’s No. 15 power ranking entering the contest, with 21 automatic berths given out overall and then the next 11 highest ranked teams reaching the state playoffs. At No. 33 on that list, North Medford (3-5, 1-2) likely would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss Friday.

“I’m not thinking like that,” said North Medford senior Eli Spence of Friday potentially being the Tornado’s last game of the season. “I don’t think it will be.”

“We’ve played some challenging teams and we’ve definitely learned our lessons from our losses,” added Spence. “I think it’s just making us a better team for this Friday. Losing helps teams prepare for winning, and we’ve lost a lot and we’re tired of losing.”

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Spence has served as a dominant force thus far for the Black Tornado, already stamping his place in the school record books after accumulating 1,757 yards rushing on 237 carries to eclipse a 13-year-old mark set by Ryan Folsom (1,743 in 2005).

“He’s certainly gotten a lot of opportunity and he’s making the most of it,” said Singler of Spence. “He’s a big kid. In high school you don’t see guys like that running the football. He’s built like (ex-NFL star) Calvin Hill. That’s a big man to bring down in high school so it takes a village to get that done. We’re going to have to put our physicality cap on because we’re certainly going to be tested.”

With the Black Tornado’s steady offensive line providing a push, North Medford has averaged nearly 383 yards and 34 points per game.

Dallin England and Josh Baptiste have each run for 187 yards and join with Tommy Hamilton to provide a complement in the backfield to Spence, with sophomore Colby Neron taking over last week at quarterback and showing good signs with the help of receivers Jett Carpenter (16 catches, 268 yards, four TDs), Devyn Grafton (11 catches, 135 yards, one TD) and Anthony Taylor (nine catches, 213 yards, three TDs).

“They have ways to make it real tough on you,” said Singler. “Defensively we have a big chore in not letting them just grind out the game.”

It’s that very defense for South Medford that has Turner’s attention, with the Panthers entering the game allowing a league-best 317 yards and 20 points per game. Linemen Sam Willis and Justin Josephson and defensive backs Jace Campbell and Cole Garske have combined well with a linebacker corps led by Cole Boster, Jaxin Kinler and Jagger Burrill.

“South does such a great job of scheming defenses,” said Turner, who worked with Panthers defensive coordinator Chris Parnell during his first turn at North Medford. “Their line stunts, their blitzes, they’re well thought out and designed, and their kids are strong, they’re quick and they get off blocks and run to the ball. They run to the ball better than any team I’ve seen this year.”

The Panthers lost the services of junior running back Mason DeVries last week due to a severely broken finger, and the offense just couldn’t get in sync with a host of dropped or errant passes and a running game that never got on track.

Quarterback Giovanni Bottero will look to restore that rhythm after already completing 102 of 172 passes for 1,385 yards, 13 TDs and five interceptions, while fellow senior Terrence Butler will have to shoulder more of the load in the backfield after totaling 541 yards and nine scores on 122 carries.

Austin Boster (30 catches, 577 yards, eight TDs) and Trevor Marthoski (nine catches, 241 yards, three TDs) lead a deep receiving corps for the Panthers, who have slipped to the bottom of the SWC at 316 yards per game after struggling the past two weeks.

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

South Medford High junior Austin Bolster returning the punt upfield at Grants Pass on Friday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)