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6A/5A football teams eager to begin play Friday

With loads of experience and talent back in uniform, North Medford’s football team had aspirations of winning its first Southwest Conference championship in seven years entering what would’ve been the 2020 campaign.

While spring has now replaced fall for a season backdrop and SWC standard-bearer Sheldon is off the schedule this year as teams focus on regional play due to COVID-19 concerns, that doesn’t mean the Black Tornado has any designs of taking its foot off the gas pedal.

Traditional league rivals South Medford, Grants Pass and Roseburg are still on the slate, and have been joined by last year’s Class 5A state runner-up Crater in what shakes out as a potentially nice run over the next six weeks.

And, as third-year Black Tornado head coach Steve Turner insists, there is still plenty to look forward to for a North Medford squad hoping to dominate this spring.

“You’re coming off an 8-3 season with a ton of guys coming back so, yeah, we have high expectations,” said Turner. “We feel we’ve got a good combination of speed and size across the board everywhere, and we’ve got kids that can do multiple things for us.”

That said, the Black Tornado expects to get an immediate challenge when the season kicks off Friday at Grants Pass, as well as thereafter since it’s definitely no secret North Medford has what it takes to be one of the top teams in the state this spring.

“You’ve still got to play the game,” said Turner. “You can be considered whatever you want by everybody else but it doesn’t matter what’s on paper, it’s what’s on the field and we’ve got to go out there and perform.”

Senior leadership is everywhere you look in the North Medford lineup, with 10 returning all-SWC honorees among them in running back Devin Bradd, center Tharon Gail, receiver Chance Costanzo, defensive linemen Jayden Sandusky and Nathan Prince, linebackers Luke Pugliano and Tanner Gaoiran, defensive back Nolan Morris, placekicker Danny Cossette and punter Colby Neron.

Bradd enjoyed a marquee debut run with the Black Tornado last year with his 1,581 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. The 5-foot-10 standout is capable of beating teams with runs inside the tackles and but also can bounce outside well with his vision and quick acceleration.

“With Devin, I expect more of the same,” said Turner. “He’s put on some weight, about 210 now, and he was a tough hard runner last year and I believe he’ll be able to do that same thing this year.”

Only Gail returns as a starter on the offensive line, although seniors Brett Rucker and Caden Ingle and sophomore David Fuiava rotated in some last year. Turner said he also feels good about the emergence of juniors JJ Johnson, Kyler Steel and Adam Burkett and freshman Terrell Kym and return from injury of junior Erick Santacruz.

“It’s kind of like baseball, you want to be strong up the middle so we feel good we have our starting center back,” said Turner of Gail. “He makes a lot of the calls up front.”

Senior Colby Neron has a pair of stars under his belt at quarterback and has found success in limited spurts for the Black Tornado. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns last year in relief of then-senior Brennan Stults, who had a breakout year and took command of the starting spot with 2,350 yards passing and 26 TDs.

As Neron pushed Stults, he is being pushed by junior Mason Warren this spring but Turner said Neron expects to be in the starting role Friday.

“I’m excited to see some of the things that he can bring to the table that people didn’t see last year,” the coach said of Neron.

The receiving corps is as deep as North has enjoyed since that last title season in 2013, with Costanzo (6-2, 195) and Morris (5-11, 185) anchoring a group that includes Cossette (6-0, 170) and junior Bryce Dyer (6-4, 205), who is primed for a breakout campaign.

Costanzo was North’s second-leading receiver with 410 yards and three TDs on 27 catches, while Morris averaged a whopping 37.5 yards per catch and scored six times.

“Any one of those kids as a receiver can explode on any given day,” said Turner. “If people want to double somebody, that’s fine with us because it’s pick your poison as far as our receivers go. They’re going to be a tough matchup.”

Pugliano also feeds into that mix as a three-year starter who serves as the “quarterback of the defense” in a secondary that includes the aforementioned receivers.

Sandusky (6-2, 230) and Prince (6-1, 220) are quick off the ball and have the speed and power to hurry any quarterback from their defensive end slots, and will get plenty of support inside from junior Brandon Dominguez (6-1, 260), Fuiava (6-2, 315) and Kym (6-4, 330) among others.

Gaoiran is a standout wrestler who shows a knack for finding the football at linebacker, where senior Devin Blankenship also returns as a playmaker. Bradd and Gail expect to be added to the mix this year more, with senior Dylan Holcomb and freshman AJ Pugliano.

North Medford

2020-21 Schedule

Mar. 5at Grants Pass, 7 p.m.

Mar. 12TBD

Mar. 19at Crater, 7 p.m.

Mar. 26ROSEBURG, 7 p.m.

Apr. 2at South Medford,7 p.m.

South Medford

South Medford finds itself in a unique position this year with inexperience at the position that often matters most, but head coach Bill Singler is optimistic about the Panthers’ chances due to a solid support system that includes 23 seniors.

Key among those seniors will be returning offensive linemen Mayson Ramirez — a second-team all-SWC pick a year ago at center — Gio Rios, Jalen Steadmon, Charlie Campbell and Cameron Davis, who missed most of his junior year due to injury but has already proven well up to the task.

That group will prove instrumental as South Medford breaks in a sophomore starter at quarterback for the first time on Day 1 since Boomer Marshall began his heralded run in 2000. Sophomore Deacon Edgar (5-11, 170) gets the nod Friday against Crater at Spiegelberg Stadium after putting in all the necessary work over the offseason, edging fellow sophomore Henry Williams (6-0, 180) when it came down to a two-man race following the various departures of South’s other QB candidates.

Edgar and Williams, in fact, are the only quarterbacks in the Panther system at the JV or varsity level, and it will be a trial by fire for Edgar but he has proven to rise to the challenge time after time with abilities well beyond his age.

Edgar has been likened in the early stages to another recent South QB, Robbie Patterson, with his athleticism to make plays with his legs and a strong arm in the pocket. Patterson became the starter three games into his sophomore year.

“We have to put more on the seniors this year, especially on offense to get him through this,” Singler said of his young QB. “I’d have a lot more anxiety going in this year if we had a non-senior offensive line but we pretty much have a senior offensive line, so that’s going to help because we have kids who have hopefully been through the wars a little bit and will keep him upright.”

The Panthers also have the luxury of considerable talent and options in the backfield in returning juniors Brycen Guches (5-7, 165) and Carson Joe (5-10, 200), who earned all-SWC honors in 2019, as well as the addition of Garrett Henderson (5-9, 185).

Last year, Guches averaged 7.6 yards per carry as a big play threat, while Joe was dynamic as a lead blocker. At North Medford, Henderson showed incredible promise with 232 yards and two scores on 42 carries and could be primed for a breakout year as he adds a nice complement to the elusive Guches.

“He’s shown well on both sides of the ball,” Singler said of Henderson. “I like him a lot because he likes to run the ball downhill, that’s a plus.”

Senior Carson Cota has garnered plenty of attention since he stepped on campus as the younger brother of current UCLA standout Chase Cota and son of ex-NFL standout Chad Cota and provides great hands and physicality as a receiver. Cota hauled in 25 passes for 332 yards and two scores last year and will be pivotal in helping the Panthers move the chains.

Seniors Garrett Smith and Isaiah McNaught move to prime roles at receiver, while Colton Samis, a junior transfer from Phoenix, is another promising target with senior Blake Shields.

Seniors Kaleb Barney and Kalem Gartim expect to also help boost the passing game.

Defensively, the Panthers return only three starters in Barney (safety), Campbell (defensive line) and senior Nick Varner, who was a second-team all-conference pick and is joined by Joe as linebackers who help bring a punch against their opposition.

South Medford also picked up a pair of quality additions in the trenches in James LaFond (6-4, 280), a two-year starter at Ashland, and Brody Lewis (6-3, 230), who hails from Etna, California.

With only 52 players spread out among the JV and varsity systems, several players will be asked to play roles on each side of the ball for a South squad that will have to develop depth as the season progresses.

“We’re going to have to use the five-quarter rule more than we ever have,” said Singler of the rule that allows a player to play five quarters in a week spread between varsity and JV tilts. “We’ll have to build depth with the quarter rule.”

South Medford

2020-21 Schedule

Mar. 5CRATER, 7 p.m.

Mar. 12at Roseburg, 7 p.m.

Mar. 19EAGLE POINT, 7 p.m.

Mar. 26at Grants Pass, 7 p.m.

Apr. 2NORTH MEDFORD,7 p.m.

Grants Pass

Grants Pass rivals North Medford with the most returning varsity experience, with the Cavemen bringing back seven starters on offense and six more on defense.

“We have a talented group of seniors, a big group with a lot of big kids,” said head coach John Musser, in his 13th season at the helm. “Our offensive line guys especially have played a lot of football games for us so we’re banking on the size of the offensive line and their experience to help us out.”

Tackle Kai Perez (6-3, 255) was a first-team all-SWC pick a year ago and is surrounded by fellow senior returners Andrew Prulhiere (6-0, 260), Logan Vinyard (6-1, 305) and Wyatt Mooney (6-0, 205).

They will be tasked with making a push for all-conference running back Spencer Sloan, who shared time last year but came on strong with a nice downhill approach and good balance when making his cuts. Sloan ran for more than 400 yards and had five TDs last year.

Hunter Gonzales takes over for the graduated Chase Coyle and proved his readiness in a comeback attempt against North Medford one year ago. Gonzales (6-2, 215) was 23-for-43 for 363 yards, two TDs and three interceptions after taking over for an injured Coyle.

The Cavemen will remain in their spread offensive scheme, just may slow it down a little this year after Musser felt like maybe a game or two might have slipped away due to allowing too many possessions to their opponent.

“There’s a lot of things that Chase was able to do that Hunter can do, too, as far as arm-strength and that kind of stuff,” said Musser. “We’re excited about that. We’re going to stay with our play-action game and our RPO game but it’s just not going to be quite the frenzied pace that maybe we were at before.”

Devik Chiang (6-2, 191) provides a physical and athletic target on the perimeter after posting 555 yards and seven TDs on 35 receptions last year.

Perez is joined by senior linebacker Dante Haven and senior safety Jett Hood in solidifying a defense that could see the front line average about 280 pounds across the board with Prulhiere, sophomore Parker Jarvis (6-3, 315) and senior Riley Bonney (6-4, 288).

“I think the size up front is really impressive and should help us be able to kind of clog up holes,” said Musser.

Haven, who had 68 tackles a year ago and has committed to Western Oregon, will move to outside linebacker to take advantage of his athleticism and ability to play in space, while Hood led the team with 77 tackles last season despite missing time due to a shoulder injury.

Grants Pass

2020-21 Schedule

Mar. 5NORTH MEDFORD, 7 p.m.

Mar. 12at Crater, 7 p.m.

Mar. 19at Roseburg, 7 p.m.

Mar. 26SOUTH MEDFORD, 7 p.m.

Apr. 2EAGLE POINT, 7 p.m.

Crater

From the very first day of December 2019, the Comets have been waiting for their encore after the best season in Crater history, one that saw the Class 5A Comets come as close as they’ve ever come to winning a state title in football.

“It’s been nothing short of a miracle that we’ve gotten to this point,” Crater head coach Berk Brown said, “and I think our players and our coaches have shown a tremendous amount of dedication and grit to get to this point. Now that we’re close now, the excitement is through the roof.”

Brown — who took over for former head coach Randy Waite over the summer after spending three seasons as Crater’s defensive coordinator — and the Comets open their season Friday night against South Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium.

“They’re coming into Spiegelberg with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,” Brown said of his squad. “They grew up playing against these kids, they know all these kids through social media, and I think they really feel like they have something to prove.

“We’re excited and we’re using the Rocky IV example when Rocky has to go into Russia and fight Ivan Drago — that’s the mentality we’re taking. It’s been awesome and the kids are really buying into the ‘Hey, everybody’s overlooking you when you face the bigger, stronger opponent.’ They’re really relishing the moment to play these 6A schools.”

Coming off an 11-2 season where their only two losses were to state champion Thurston, the Comets have plenty back from the team that played for the 5A title in 2019.

Crater returns some of its top playmakers on both sides of the ball as well as in the trenches.

That’s a welcome sight for the Comets’ new starting quarterback, senior Blake Eaton, who takes over after backing up Trever Davis for two years.

The 6-foot-2 Eaton is more of a pocket passer than Davis, which Brown said will give the Comets a little different look on offense this season.

Brown has been hugely impressed with the progress Eaton — who has also seen time at safety on defense — has made since the end of the 2019 season.

“He’s come a long way,” Brown said. “You give a kid 15 months and he fully buys in and, on top of that, works on his own with Jim Nagel down in Ashland ... he’s come a long way. The kid can spin it, so we’re excited to have Blake leading us.”

Eaton’s top two targets are well-known commodities entering their senior season.

Trevor Jaasko was a first-team all-state pick after leading the Comets in receiving yards (731) and touchdown catches (10) in the 2019 season. Dawson Douglas, who signed with Southern Oregon University last month, finished 2019 with a team-high 46 receptions while adding nine touchdowns.

Jaasko and Douglas will also be key pieces on the Comets’ defense again this season.

“We’re really excited about those two kids and what they bring to the table on both sides of the football,” said Brown.

Senior lineman Dawson Davis will anchor the Comets on both sides of the ball. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Davis, who like Douglas signed with SOU earlier this year, was a second-team all-state pick in 2019.

Davis is part of a trio of all-state linemen back for the Comets.

Fellow senior William Woitee was a second-team all-state pick on defense, while Jimmy Jordahl, who’s still just a junior, was an honorable mention selection.

Crater

2020-21 Schedule

Mar. 5at South Medford, 7 p.m.

Mar. 12GRANTS PASS, 7 p.m.

Mar. 19NORTH MEDFORD, 7 p.m.

Mar. 26at Eagle Point, 7 p.m.

Apr. 2at Roseburg, 7 p.m.

Eagle Point

Now, more than ever, Eagle Point head coach Erik Johnson wants his team to control what it can control. And the Eagles need to look no further than how the week leading up to their spring season opener has gone.

On Sunday night, Roseburg was forced to cancel its season opener against Eagle Point due to a COVID-19 case in the program. Forty-eight hours later, Eagle Point had already found a new Week 1 opponent, with a trip north to Springfield new serving as the Eagles’ first chance to play a competitive football game since Nov. 1, 2019.

As you might guess, the chance to finally get out on the field isn’t lost on Johnson and his group.

“We’re just, first of all, happy to be playing,” Johnson said. “The stuff that we can control is what we’re trying to preach.”

Eagle Point is coming off a 2-7 season in 2019 and its schedule this spring will feature only one other MWL South Division foe (at home against Crater on March 26) after Ashland opted out of varsity football during the OSAA’s Season 2.

“If we have to play 6A or 5A or 4A, we really don’t care right now because we’re just finally getting on the field and getting some experience,” Johnson said. “That’s out of our control now and we’ll just do our best to get after it and compete with anybody we play.”

Senior Lucas Meerten did a little bit of everything for the Eagles on offense last season and will be expected to lead the way again.

“I can tell that he’s taken control in his senior year,” Johnson said. “On the field, he’s smart and he understands the game, so we have to put him in the kind of situation that can make him successful in all three phases of the game.”

Fellow senior Reagan Scheffler will be another pass-catching option for the Eagles at tight end. Johnson describes Scheffler as “a player you want to build a program around.”

The Eagles’ second-year head coach also pointed out a pair of sophomores to keep an eye on this spring: lineman Nathan Self and Wyatt Graves, who will play “a little bit of receiver and tailback” on offense and outside linebacker on defense.

Junior Isaiah Hill, a big contributor at running back, will also be the Eagles’ leader on defense at middle linebacker.

“He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he plays well,” Johnson said of Hill. “He’s been one of our verbal (leadership) guys, and those are tough to come by. He’s shown a lot of maturity just in a year.”

A big focus during the extended offseason for Johnson and his coaching staff was to try and continue the teaching of their system heading into their second season together.

Now all that remains is to get on the field against another team and try to put the lessons they’ve learned to good use.

“Nothing can substitute game time, but just for the purposes of learning, we’ve definitely taken advantage of the time that we’ve been off,” Johnson said. “The training that we were allowed to do with restrictions whether it’s online type stuff, video type stuff, we definitely put a lot of work into that.”

Eagle Point

2020-21 Schedule

Mar. 5at Springfield, 7 p.m.

Mar. 12TBD

Mar. 19at South Medford, 7 p.m.

Mar. 26CRATER, 7 p.m.

Apr. 2at Grants Pass, 7 p.m.

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

Eagle Point runner Isaiah Hill, (25), is stopped by Crater's Gavin Acrey, (15). Photo by Denise Baratta
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford’s Colby Neron scrambles during practice Tuesday evening at Bowerman Field.