Cascade Christian football players had an extra bounce in their stride, along with bling around their necks, on Monday after claiming the Class 3A...
Few question the uphill climb North Medford is faced with as part of a daunting Southwest Conference landscape, but that challenge has also served as a rallying point for the Black Tornado.
No winning seasons since 2005, very little varsity experience and an almost entirely new coaching staff "… none of that matters for North Medford as much as simply taking a step forward, and then maybe another and so on.
"The kids really want to climb out of this thing they're in," said first-year North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell.
"The culture has not been what one would expect from the past few seasons and these guys are working at a fantastic pace to change that culture," he added. "We are putting things back together with proper discipline and enthusiasm and we are getting better each time we set our foot on the field."
If the Tornado is going to keep making strides, Mitchell said it will be largely due to the young team's ability to jell early in the season. North returns only 16 lettermen.
"We just have a lot to learn about coming together as a team but we'll get there," said Mitchell, who has 39 years experience at the high school and college levels and comes to Medford from Sandpoint High in Idaho. "I can't fault their effort right now, I think we're really seeing good effort."
Helping set the tone has been senior Evan Hisey, who started on both sides of the ball last year and will be tasked with putting a charge in North's stagnant running game along with his linebacker duties.
"Evan Hisey has looked really good so far," said Mitchell, a sentiment echoed by defensive coordinator Chris Kincaid, who comes to the program by way of Sunset High in Dallas, Texas.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Hisey carried 79 times for 361 yards and two touchdowns last year for a Black Tornado team that managed only 231 yards per game — 91 coming on the ground. All told, North scored 14 points or less in all but one game of an 0-10 campaign last year, with its lone victory (46-44 at South Eugene) later forfeited due to the use of an ineligible player.
Hisey will have plenty of company in the backfield this year as North hopes to focus on restoring the running game. Senior Kolby Talbert (5-6, 140) will provide a different look, while sophomore Nick Janakes (5-11, 180) may possess the biggest upside of any Tornado ballcarrier.
"We have to run the ball better than they ran it last year and that's where we're going to start," said Mitchell. "I do want to get back to playing football, and they haven't been playing football here. We're going to learn how to run off tackle like the old days."
That may be easier said than done given the defensive fronts that will square off against the Tornado, but left guard Fou Polataivao (6-3, 305), center Hunter Hermansen (6-2, 185) and right guard Tyler Baird (5-10, 255) will be charged with creating enough space to make that happen. An area of concern, however, is the overall depth and experience in the trenches.
The burden of moving the chains will also fall on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Troy Fowler. The 5-foot-11, 145-pounder possesses excellent athleticism and accuracy and just seems to have a great feel for the position. He led the freshman team to an undefeated campaign in 2011 and has a knack for making plays even when there's a breakdown in his protection.
"He's got a little bit of that judgment that you just don't find every day," said Mitchell. "I think he's going to be a special guy. We're going to have to live with him being a sophomore, which has a lot of ups and downs to it, and we've got to find a way to protect him."
To keep Fowler upright, and to take advantage of his athleticism, Mitchell said North will try to move the pocket around this season and won't necessarily be traditional in its passing schemes.
Given the time to throw, Fowler will have plenty of capable targets on the perimeter. Riley Driscoll is a 6-1, 170-pound transfer from Phoenix High — where he studied under North's new receivers coach Doug Elam — and will be complemented by a group that includes Eugene Ellis, Jared Evans, Tristin Holmes, Joey Walker, Josh Hansen, Brian Bush and Brody Zoller.
"Receiver is one of the strengths so far that I see," said Mitchell. "I think these guys can play and all eight can really catch the ball."
Most of the same names will be asked to turn around and boost the Black Tornado's fortunes on defense. North seemingly has nowhere to go but up on that side of the ball after allowing an average of about 52 points and 482 yards per game in 2011.
Polataivao, Baird and Christian Sweet (6-0, 180) will be asked to plug the holes on the defensive line, with Hisey capable of really shaking things up from his linebacker slot.
"We have started from scratch and we are learning to walk before we run," said Mitchell. "We have a long way to go but progress is evident and we are excited about the future."