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...
In the step-by-step process North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell said his team would need to follow to restore the school's tradition of winning football, it's safe to say there was also an option to go for a big leap every so often.
In the case of the upcoming football season, that's what Black Tornado coaches, players and fans hope happens in 2013.
In Mitchell's first season at the helm, North Medford was able to rid itself of the bitterness of a winless 2011 campaign and put a dent in some woeful per-game averages. The Black Tornado last year allowed about 100 yards and 17 points fewer per game and scored more than 14 points in half of its 10 games.
The end result still only mounted to two victories, but there also were two six-point losses for a program that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2005.
With a talented young nucleus and more dedication throughout the squad — Mitchell said the group seemingly went from the playing field to the weight room and stayed there in the offseason — the outlook is bright.
"We're excited and yet we're not trying to be overly optimistic," said Mitchell, in his second season at North and 40th coaching football overall. "We want to be realistic about where we are, but I would expect real growth this year where we're a competitive team. And when you're competitive, anything can happen. I've got a good feeling about this team. I couldn't be happier with the growth from last year."
Raising that confidence level is a talent-rich junior class that was thrown to the wolves a bit last season and is hoping to bite back a little more this time around.
At the top of that list is 5-foot-10, 190-pound running back/linebacker Nick Janakes, who proved he belonged from Day 1 on special teams and gradually became more involved in North Medford's plans throughout the season. Janakes wound up earning honorable mention all-conference on both sides of the ball and will be looked to for big things again this year.
Janakes ran for 231 yards on only 41 carries and caught 14 passes for 261 yards in support of SWC leading rusher Evan Hisey, who graduated. Janakes stands to gain more carries but will also get help from fellow junior Edmund Polataivao, who was an honorable mention linebacker that also came on strong toward the end of 2012.
"While I appreciated Hisey and all the many things he did for us last year, Nick will jump right in and get help from Edmund as well as (sophomore) Will Spence and we'll be fine there in the backfield," said Mitchell.
Returning to take charge of the offense is junior quarterback Troy Fowler, who had his ups and downs during his first year at the varsity level. Fowler suffered a late-season setback when he was knocked out of the South Medford game in Week 8 and missed the rest of the season with a concussion.
The 6-0, 165-pound Fowler completed 63 of 155 passes for 949 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He continued his commitment to the sport in the offseason with more work at the Barton Football Academy and has the tools to lead the Tornado downfield.
"Troy's commitment off the field is unbelievable," said Mitchell. "He's really a guy you're looking for as a leader, and I can't say more about the kid and how much he cares."
A big key for Fowler will be in simply having time to throw. North Medford tried to move the pocket around for him last year but most of Fowler's pass attempts still were under pressure.
"That's why we brought (former Hidden Valley head coach) Jim Figoni in here," Mitchell said of his longtime friend. "We're going to really do a good job of trying to get Troy some time. He's a good thrower when he's not running around. We're going to move the pocket and do a lot of the things we think are intelligent to make that possible because we need to do something to ensure he doesn't get happy feet and feel like he has to move around."
North Medford also benefitted at the quarterback position with the transfer of junior Jacob Moore from Cascade Christian. Moore (6-4, 200) has the size and strong arm to compete and Mitchell said is already doing a good job of keeping Fowler on his toes and helping ensure that the team won't slip a bit should a situation like last year's arise.
Hunter Hermansen stands as the only returning offensive lineman, but if North can find a sturdy group to hold the line, Fowler will have plenty of options on the perimeter with playmakers like Jared Evans and Eugene Ellis leading the way. Evans led the Tornado with 286 yards receiving on 17 catches last year while Ellis had nine receptions for 68 yards but has really come on strong in the offseason.
Tristen Holmes, Brian Bush, Josh Hansen and Michael Jones add depth to the receiving corps, while Micah Brown and Andrew Todd are quality options at tight end.
"The strength of our team right now is the perimeter people we have on both sides of the ball," said Mitchell. "We have some pretty good corners and good receivers."
Returning placekicker Preston Chachere also provides a boost after showing big-play ability with his game-winning, 39-yard field goal in the final seconds of a 16-15, season-opening win over McNary.
"We're still very young but down the road quite a ways from where we were last year," said Mitchell. "I'm not ready to say we're in the championship hunt, but I certainly can say we can go out on the field and compete with anyone."
"We definitely want to aim at one of the (top four) playoff berths and see if we can be more competitive than we were last year," he added. "We think we're ready to compete with that middle clump of teams (in the SWC). I'll be surprised if we're not. I can name about four of those games we were right in for half the game and then we put up a white flag, and hopefully our guys have learned enough to not put that white flag up anymore."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry