For lack of a better phrase, stuff happens.
At least that’s the take for North Medford football coach Steve Turner after his team found itself losing on a two-point conversion for the second straight week in a 43-42 setback at Mountain View.
Making matters even more bitter, the Cougars actually tied the game on a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds to give them their chance at victory over the Black Tornado (2-2).
“We all learn from experiences and most people learn from bad experiences,” said Turner. “We’ve had experiences and we’re learning from those. In all actuality, we’re a better football team than we were at the beginning of the season and that’s the important thing. We’ve gotten better each week, we’ve played good football teams the last two weeks and we’re getting better.”
Good competition turns to great competition, however, on Friday night at Spiegelberg Stadium as North Medford welcomes Sheldon to town in the Southwest Conference opener for both teams. Kickoff is 7 p.m., with the Irish (3-1) boasting a No. 3 ranking in the Class 6A coaches poll and a No. 1 spot in the 6A state power rankings.
Senior quarterback Michael Johnson Jr., who is a Penn State commit, and Oregon-bound senior tight end/defensive end Patrick Herbert are marquee players for Sheldon, but the Irish are so much more under the guidance of second-year head coach Josh Line.
“You’ve got to start with their overall size and athleticism at every position,” said Turner of Friday’s challenge. “Obviously they’ve got the quarterback that everybody in the country wants him to play for them next year and the tight end is another guy that everybody wants, but they’re not a two-man team. They’re a senior-loaded varsity football team at each position, and that’s what makes them so difficult to prepare for.”
In Friday’s other key 6A action, South Medford is on the road at McNary and Grants Pass opens SWC play at Roseburg.
At the 5A level, Crater plays host to South Eugene in a pivotal matchup of Midwestern League South Division leaders while Ashland is at Eagle Point in a battle of local MWL squads.
Phoenix is also at home against Klamath Union in 4A action, while St. Mary’s hosts Douglas at U.S. Cellular Community Park to highlight 3A play while Cascade Christian is on the road at Hidden Valley.
North Medford has plenty to be excited about despite the recent last-second heartbreaks, with senior tailback Eli Spence and a gritty offensive line paving the way for an offense that has averaged 438 yards and nearly 47 points per game. Defensively, the Black Tornado is limiting its opponents to around 333 yards and 29 points per game.
“We’re in the right direction,” said Turner. “Everybody wants everything right now, that’s the way the world is. But you have to take small strides to get to where you want to be at the end of the year. Obviously we’d like to be 4-0, but that doesn’t change who we are or where we’re at today.”
Spence continues to shine in the backfield, with the 6-foot-5, 217-pound standout already amassing 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing on 105 carries. He’s been complemented well by junior Josh Baptiste, who has run for 151 yards and two scores on 13 carries, for an offense that gets its leverage from linemen Tony Bench (center), Kika Stone (right guard), Romello Tialavea (right tackle), Jullian Stone (left guard) and Parker Landon (left tackle).
Sheldon has its own set of sturdy players in the trenches, and it will surprise no one if the Irish attempt to overload the box with defenders in an effort to slow North Medford’s powerful running attack.
“We’ve seen that every game this year,” said Turner. “Obviously this is the No. 1 team in the state (power rankings) and they’re going to want to make a statement that Spence can’t run for 100 yards against us. Obviously they have some goals, too, and that’s the beauty of the sport, it’s who can put their will on the other. That’s the fun part, that’s why we play the game.”
Through the air, North junior quarterback Brennan Stults has completed 19 of 34 passes for 283 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Johnson missed Sheldon’s first two games due to a shoulder injury but passed for 197 yards and four touchdowns — three to Herbert — and ran for 144 yards and one score as the Irish beat West Salem, 56-21, last week. One of the nation’s top recruits, Johnson has completed 16 of 28 passes for 364 yards and five scores while running 38 times for 346 yards and two scores.
“It’s like pick your poison with him,” said Turner of Johnson’s elite dual-threat capabilities.
Tailback Matthew Burgess has run for 402 yards and eight TDs thus far and lends balance to a Sheldon attack also led by Zach Folsom, Jack Folsom and Herbert, who has 17 catches for 258 yards and six TDs.
SOUTH MEDFORD AT MCNARY: South Medford remains a work in progress, but this is probably the last week the Panthers can use inexperience as a crutch as we enter the midpoint of the season.
South Medford took a big step forward last week with a stifling defensive effort and the big-play emergence of senior quarterback Giovanni Bottero and junior receiver Austin Boster during a 21-12 win over previously unbeaten McMinnville.
“We did some good things last week,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “I’m happy about our quarterback play, I thought he made great improvement from Game 3 to Game 4. He’s been throwing the ball for a high percentage, his decision-making has been good by and large and it was nice to see him get a couple deep throws completed. We’ve got to continue to build on that.”
Bottero has completed 55 of 87 passes for 717 yards, seven TDs and two interceptions, while Boster ranks second in the SWC with 352 yards receiving and six scores on 17 catches.
The Panthers expect to have their hands full defensively despite McNary’s 0-4 record thanks to the presence of two standout junior prospects in quarterback Erik Barker (6-4, 210) and running back/linebacker Junior Walling (6-2, 225).
The Celtics have played a tough schedule thus far, leading to their winless record, but Barker passed for about 2,700 yards and 24 touchdowns last year while Walling was one of the team’s leading tacklers as well as a second-team all-conference running back after rushing for 991 yards and nine TDs.