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North Medford hits road for playoffs at Tualatin

One might look at it as a case of survival, but it was also a show of character for North Medford in last week’s opening round of the Class 6A football state playoffs.

Trailing by 13 points heading into the fourth quarter, the Black Tornado managed a host of big plays on both sides of the ball and denied an upset bid by Reynolds with a 55-49 overtime triumph. It was the program’s first playoff win since 2014.

It’s that sense of dogged perseverance that 10th-seeded North Medford takes into Friday’s second-round clash at No. 7 Tualatin. Kickoff is 7 p.m.

“It showed some maturity,” said Black Tornado head coach Steve Turner of last week’s comeback win, “and it also showed that there are some guys out there that don’t want to lose, and that’s important.”

It will be especially important Friday as North Medford (8-2) faces its toughest opponent to date in the talented Timberwolves (8-2), who wrapped up the regular season ranked No. 2 in the 6A coaches’ poll and rolled to a 69-27 first-round win over Westview.

“You watch them on film and you see why they win football games,” said Turner. “They’re a talented football team.”

“They’ve got a lot of athletes, and a lot of senior athletes,” he added. “They have a good mix of big, strong kids up front, it’s just a quality football team.”

Tualatin tied for second place in unquestionably the state’s toughest conference. The Three Rivers League boasts the Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 7 teams in the state rankings in Tigard, Lake Oswego, West Linn and Tualatin, respectively, and saw all four, plus No. 22 Lakeridge, advance to the Round of 16.

North Medford, however, hasn’t flinched in road tests against No. 6 Aloha and No. 8 Sheldon — losing by a combined three points after holding second-half leads — and doesn’t plan on doing so this week.

“It’s not like we’ve played any powder puffs on the road in tough situations,” said Turner. “Is this going to be an easy game, no, but it’s something that we’ve done and we’ll be prepared and we’ll be ready to play.”

The Black Tornado will also get a boost with the return of junior tailback Devin Bradd, who finished as the leading rusher in the Southwest Conference with 1,513 yards and 25 touchdowns on 178 carries.

Two weeks ago, Bradd was well on his way to a Black and Blue Bowl record with 230 yards rushing against South Medford when, after scoring his third TD, he was ejected for receiving his second taunting penalty with 5:40 to go in the third quarter. Patrick Thibeault set the record of 238 yards in 2007 for the Panthers.

The ejection meant serving a one-game suspension, which Bradd nervously did last week and was as ecstatic as anyone after sophomore Bryce Dyer pulled in the game-winning TD pass from Brennan Stults against Reynolds.

Minus Bradd, North Medford ran 21 times for only 46 yards against the stout Raiders, and that included a 49-yard TD run by Josh Baptiste on the fourth play from scrimmage. That led to a reliance on Stults and a passing attack that answered the call with 395 yards and seven TDs through the air.

“We would really like to have the balance we’ve had all year,” said Turner. “I don’t think it was so much a Devin issue (last week), I think it was a Reynolds issue. I think they were pretty good. They were very, very aggressive and they played well.”

Stults had his share of miscommunications, as well as a few dropped balls through three quarters, but the Black Tornado was dialed in when it mattered most against the Raiders. Stults attempted a career-high 45 passes, completing 26 with one interception, and the yardage and TD totals were also career bests.

For the year, Stults has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,153 yards, 24 TDs and only five interceptions.

“I’m really impressed with the way he’s improved as the season has gone along,” said Turner. “He’s gotten better and better and better and I think that’s a product of preparation, which means practice. He practices hard every day and I think that’s why he has improved.”

It also hasn’t hurt that Stults has enjoyed a bevy of viable targets this season, along with steady protection up front by his offensive line.

Jett Carpenter, the SWC’s offensive player of the year, boasts 51 receptions for 928 yards and 12 TDs but North’s aerial prowess goes well beyond the 6-foot-4 senior tight end’s presence.

Chance Costanzo had 10 catches for 126 yards last week and is up to 362 yards and three scores on 24 catches, while Devyn Grafton was also instrumental one week ago in the comeback effort and carries 21 catches for 426 yards and four TDs into Friday’s game.

Nolan Morris has averaged 37.5 yards per catch to total 412 yards and six scores, and the 6-3 Dyer made a splash and proved to be a matchup issue in his varsity debut last week.

North Medford will likely need every bit of that offensive potential Friday, with Tualatin averaging nearly 44 points per game behind an imposing offensive line that will test the limits of the Black Tornado’s defensive line and linebackers.

North Medford’s defense has limited opponents to 319 yards and 23 points per game. Devin Blankenship, Tanner Gaoiran, Brad Reed, Luke Pugliano, Jayden Sandusky and Cole Zoller each stepped up during key points last week.

“They better be on their toes and not on their backs,” Turner said of his front line of defense, “because these guys come off the football and they’re big and they’re strong. Their running game sets up their passing game, without a doubt. If you can’t stop them running the ball then you’re in for a long night.”

Senior Kainoa Sayre led Tualatin’s rushing attack with 165 yards and four TDs on eight carries last week, while senior Luke Marion added 92 yards and two TDs on three carries, sophomore Ethan Mendoza ran nine times for 59 yards and two scores and sophomore Malik Ross added a TD run and TD reception.

“They use a lot of guys, it’s just not one or two,” said Turner. “There’s quite a few guys who can hurt you back there.”

That list also includes senior quarterback Blake Jackson, who completed 14 of 17 passes for 222 yards, one TD and one interception before giving way to sophomore Jackson Jones, who went 5-for-9 for 90 yards and one TD.

Marion, Ross, Sayre and senior tight end John Miller, who also will line up in the backfield and run the ball, proved to be Tualatin’s leading receivers one week ago.

Despite their prowess, however, the Timberwolves did trail Westview 15-14 through one quarter last week and allowed quarterback Brayden Libby to pass for 358 yards and three scores on 28 completions.

“We’ve got to be disciplined and we can’t make mistakes,” said Turner. “We’ve got to hold our penalties down and play each play like it’s the last and not worry about the scoreboard. Those are all coaching cliches but that’s why coaches say them, because they’re always so true.”

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