Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
The opportunity to join the Portland Timbers' U18 Academy soccer team was simply too great to pass up for South Medford High standout Mitch North.
About two weeks into that fateful decision, things couldn't be better for the blossoming goalkeeper. North went from a prospective senior athlete for the Panthers to an unbelievable stint between the pipes this past Sunday for the Timbers Reserves in front of about 10,000 fans at JELD-WEN Field.
"It's all been pretty crazy," the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder said of his recent soccer whirlwind. "It's been pretty cool, man, but pretty crazy."
North is among a group of 23 athletes at the U18 level and 25 others at U16 who have made the bold choice to leave their high school programs and join the Timbers Academy to further their prospects on the pitch. North, 17, was the only player chosen from the Rogue Valley, with Jesuit losing five players overall.
"Out of this area, I don't know that it's going to be as impactful as the Portland area," South Medford boys soccer coach Dave Kaufman said of the Timbers Academy lure, which is in its first season. "For somebody like Mitch, the opportunity is one that, from a high school standpoint, we would never give him the kind of exposure he's getting, nor would a local club team."
North nearly lost out on the opportunity because he dragged his feet a bit, wanting to make sure he had all the information necessary before going all-in. His commitment was assured, however, when North and his family came to the agreement that he would uproot himself and move to the Portland area to be more available to the Academy program.
"The rest is history, as they say," added North. "I think at the end of the day, athletes have to look out for themselves and we have to do what's best for ourselves and follow our dreams. Playing soccer just happens to be my dream. I'm not there yet but hopefully I will be in the next few years."
Anything is possible should North continue to shine on the pitch.
He was South Medford's starting keeper as a freshman in 2009, helping lead the Panthers to a runner-up finish in the state playoffs, and has continued to develop into one of the state's best at his position.
Still, North knew there was more to give — he just needed the right environment.
"At South I didn't push myself as much as I could've because I really had no one to push me," he said. "Now I have someone like that with the guy next to me (on the Academy team) wanting my spot and capable of earning it. A situation like that only helps to improve you as a player."
North was fortunate to find a willing home away from home in Canby, where he lives with Academy teammate Abdiel Morfin and his family. He attends Canby High School to remain on pace for his degree with the Class of 2013, and trains every night with his U18 squad.
The level of expectation as part of the Timbers organization has been an eye-opener for North, who has had to remove his earrings and be more mindful of the situation he's in.
"They expect perfection from just about everything you do," he said. "Now everything you do is under a microscope. They expect you to act like a professional, and they treat you like a professional. There's more expected of me so I feel like I'm playing each day like there's more expected of me, and that keeps me developing as a player."
North found himself on the sidelines in the Timbers U18's debut game against Chivas USA's U18 squad, a 5-0 loss one week ago. Against the Los Angeles Galaxy's Academy team the following day, North got the start and made an impressive stop of a penalty kick in what was a 2-0 loss. That performance was enough to show his worthiness and North was named the team's starting goalkeeper soon after.
That designation wound up being quite a reward for North, who got bumped up the Timbers organization's totem pole for keepers and eventually wound up on the field in prime time play due to a domino effect brought on by injuries. An injury to Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts led Joe Bendik to move up and play with the first team last Saturday. Third-team goalkeeper Jake Gleeson was then installed as starter for the Reserves on Sunday against the Seattle Sounders FC Reserves and North, as the next in line, was granted the backup role in the Reserve League finale.
"I wasn't thinking that I was going to have a chance to play or anything," said North, "I was just thinking that this is cool, free tickets to the game."
When Gleeson went down to a hand injury in the 32nd minute, North got the call to duty and didn't flinch.
"He ran out there like he's been there before and played like it," said Kaufman, who was watching the Reserves game on the Timbers' live stream. "He just had the swagger of looking like, 'Hey, this is no big thing, I've been here before.' It was pretty impressive."
The Timbers Reserves, made up of several first-team regulars coming off injuries, had taken a 3-0 lead on goals by Kris Boyd, Mike Fucito and Brent Richards in the first 15 minutes. That lead held up through halftime, but the Timbers didn't have the same second-half fire and the Sounders wound up tacking on goals in the 49th and 78th minutes before holding on for a 3-2 victory.
"There wasn't much he could've done on either of the goals," said Kaufman, an acclaimed goalkeeper in his own right.
For his part, North said he was most at ease while on the field.
"At some point your instincts just take over and you just kinda tune everybody out and forget about the amount of people and the amount of pressure and just go out and play," said North. "At halftime, I was thinking, 'Wow, I'm actually doing this,' as I was looking around and seeing all the guys who usually play on TV that are coming back from injuries. Nerves started to hit me then but once the second half rolled around and I was back on the field, I was OK."
North said he received accolades from the Timbers coaches after his substitute role but it's too early to tell where that may lead.
"Maybe I'll be back up there again with the Reserves in March when they pick back up but, for now, I'm just happy to be playing with the Academy team this weekend against the Seattle Sounders (Academy team)," he said. The Academy season ends in June.
Kaufman is a little more open to the bright prospects ahead for his former player.
"It's amazing how things can happen, and quickly," he said. "Who knows what will happen for him from here on out. I would not be shocked if some big decisions were put in front of him in the next eight to 12 months. He has all the physical tools, I'm really pleased with where he's at."
As is North, who misses being with his family and friends but knows the step he's taking is the right one for him.
"For me the goal is to get into a good college and learn because I know that one day I could mess up my knee or back and I still want to have an education," said North. "After college I'd like to play (soccer) overseas or maybe in the U.S."
"Who knows, though," he added. "I've got a long road ahead of me still."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry