Almost one year ago to the day, North Medford sustained a bitter loss to South Medford that sparked an almost historic surge by the Black Tornado boys basketball team.
This time around, North Medford is hoping an early February win over the Panthers can conjure up some more of the same magic that helped carry the Black Tornado to the Class 6A state semifinals last season.
"I think it's definitely a confidence booster for our team," coach Scott Plankenhorn said Monday of his team's 51-37 win Friday at South Medford that evened their series at 1-all and created a tie atop the Southern Oregon Hybrid standings. "Now we have to go try to finish this off."
North Medford (17-2, 7-1 SOH) has three games (at Roseburg, vs. Crater and at Grants Pass) before closing out the regular season at home Feb. 21 against South Medford (16-3, 7-1).
Beyond the ability to gain its first conference title since 1998-99, of utmost importance for the Black Tornado will be achieving the highest power ranking possible in order to gain home-court advantage for the 6A playoffs. North Medford currently stands fifth in the 6A power rankings, while South Medford is eighth. The next highest SOH team is Grants Pass, which is 19th out of 43 teams.
Last year, when North Medford was run out of its own gym in a 58-39 loss to South Medford in early February, it marked the third win of the season by the Panthers over the Tornado and forced North to do a bit of soul searching with a week off before playing Roseburg. Whatever was gleaned from that extra time sparked a seven-game winning streak by the Tornado that pushed it to its second semifinal appearance in four years.
Plankenhorn said Monday that he's hopeful his team can make similar strides coming off a big win instead of a big loss.
"This is kind of where we fixed things last year, these four days leading up to Roseburg," he said of waiting a week between games. "It's a good time to have this break. It gives us these four days to tighten the ship up and get heading into that stretch run like we did last year. Anytime you play a team three times like we have to do, it's going to be a chore so it helps us tighten up for that."
"As a coach you're always trying to figure out the things we need to improve on and there are still things we need to fix," added Plankenhorn.
Chief among them is taking care of the ball. North had 24 turnovers against the Panthers, who played good defense but also were the beneficiaries of over-eagerness by the Tornado.
"We've just got to shake that off as one game," said the coach. "We average only nine turnovers in conference games and I think the hype of the game and the fact (the Panthers) always do a good job forcing people into turnovers caught up to us. Obviously neither one of us was forcing all the turnovers. Anytime it's a rivalry game, it happens like that where kids get overly excited and it ends up turning into turnovers."
Besides a return to solid defense (eight steals, 37 points allowed) and rebounding (plus 11 against South), Plankenhorn was especially pleased to see his team's offense return to one where players were looking to set up each other and running their sets to create quality shots.
"It still wasn't perfect but it was much closer to how we were playing at the beginning of the year," he said.
As good as it was to win on Friday, Plankenhorn cautioned that there is plenty of work to do.
"Everybody knows the North-South game is going to have all the hype," he said. "It's a great game to win but it doesn't decide the season. We each have four games left. There's no question it was huge for us because if we lost, we're realistically three games behind if we're looking to find a way to catch South Medford for the conference title."
Now it's a dead-even race with four games to go.
"It's everybody's third time around now and we'll see who makes the adjustments and bounces back and gets these wins," said Plankenhorn, whose team has placed fifth at state twice in the past four years. "It'll be tough for all of us."
North Medford's win over South Medford last Friday trimmed its series deficit to 44-18. The Panthers have won 27 of the last 32 meetings dating to 2000, including a streak of 17 straight that spanned seven years from 2000-01 to 2007-08. In the last 10 meetings, however, South Medford has won six times and North Medford four.
A FEW INQUIRIES HAVE come my way via my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/krishenryMT) or email regarding the coaching resume of Mike Mitchell, hired last Thursday to assume control of the North Medford football program.
The requests have involved giving a more complete breakdown of his path to North Medford High in an effort to be as transparent as possible, especially given the concerns stemming from discrepancies following last year's coaching search.
In the resume handed out during last Thursday's announcement, Mitchell's coaching career includes head coaching stints at South Albany High (1972-75), Grants Pass High (1975-76), Montana Tech (1976-78), Hidden Valley High (1978-84) and Oregon City High (1984-86).
He served as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Humboldt State from 1986-2000 before becoming head coach at DeAnza College (2000-06) in San Jose, Calif. Mitchell most recently served as head coach for six seasons at Sandpoint High in Sandpoint, Idaho from 2006-11.
He led Grants Pass, Hidden Valley and Oregon City to the state playoffs, finishing as Class AA state runner-up in his first season with Hidden Valley in 1978.
Humboldt State won a pair of conference titles in 1994 and '95 while he was on staff, and DeAnza College shared a conference title — it's first in 15 years — in 2003. Mitchell's 2009 Sandpoint team went 9-3, finished as the state runner-up and earned one of four conference titles in a three-team league.
It bears noting that Mitchell's only other winning season at Sandpoint High was a 5-4 season in 2007. The team was 5-5 in 2006 and '08, and in his final two seasons, it was 4-6 in 2010 and 1-8 in 2011. He was 29-31 overall at the school but 9-3 in 4A Inland Empire League play.
Mitchell graduated from Mount Rainier High in Kent, Wash., played a year at quarterback under legendary coach Dee Andros at the University of Idaho and then completed his playing career (he was a letterman in 1967) under Andros at Oregon State, where he earned his bachelor's degree in education.
Mitchell went on to gain a master's degree in physical education at Idaho State and carried on his post-master's work in educational administration at the University of Oregon.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry