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...
Not that he's a big talker in the first place, but North Medford senior Hunter Hermansen simply doesn't have words for his first experience at the varsity level.
These days, though, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is singing a different tune when it comes to life as a Black Tornado football player.
Hermansen played a small role in 2011 when North Medford stumbled through a winless campaign full of distractions and bad vibes but, as a starter in three areas this year, he's enjoying an entirely different atmosphere for the 2-1 Tornado.
"The success this year has just been a great feeling," says Hermansen. "The past few seasons have been, 'Oh yeah, another loss,' and the school doesn't expect much from our football team. Seeing everything change is a great feeling, especially knowing that you're a part of all that."
Hermansen is quick to caution that North Medford is far from where it wants to be, but the progress made already after equaling last year's win total in Week 3 is still worth celebrating.
"I didn't know what to expect so I prepared myself for the worst and hoped for the best," the 17-year-old lineman/punter says of his mindset leading into the season. "It definitely feels great to finally win some and kind of renew hope within our team. I feel like my job is to try to keep everyone motivated and working hard to keep this going, especially this week against a team like Sheldon."
The Irish (2-1) have suffered only two losses in Southwest Conference play since the league was formed in 2006, and both came in 2008 against Grants Pass and then South Medford. In all Sheldon has won six of the seven SWC titles, including the past four.
"They haven't lost a conference game in a long time," North head coach Mike Mitchell says of Sheldon, "but we're keeping very realistic goals and working on getting better every time we play. So far we're doing that, we're not just saying it, we're doing it. We played pretty well last week and I expect that to continue on."
Hermansen has played a vital role in all that the Black Tornado has accomplished thus far, be it through his play on the field or his leadership on and off of it. Hermansen hardly comes off the field as a right tackle on offense, end on defense and punter for the special teams unit.
As one of only 11 seniors on the North Medford roster, Mitchell says Hermansen has been invaluable to fostering a calm and positive example for his younger teammates.
"Part of the problem over time here is they had a couple classes of kids that weren't very deep classes," Mitchell says of a Tornado program that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2005. "Every senior is important, but Hunter's leadership has been really good. Whenever he's in the weight room or on the field, he's setting a good example. And he really turned it on this last week (at Grants Pass) and played better than he has before."
As a two-year starter, Hermansen has played a key role in the Black Tornado averaging 362 yards per game on offense and allowing only 260 yards per game on defense.
"We're getting outside much better this year because he's been able to hook defensive ends," says Mitchell, "and our sprint outs to the right side are more effective because of how he's holding his own out there. And defensively, we were really happy with his performance last week and he just keeps getting better. He's been solid as can be for the two years I've been here."
Hermansen also averages 37 yards per punt, but Mitchell says that number could be even better with more proficient coverage.
"He's actually outpunting his coverage," says the coach. "We've been having to punt directionally and that's hurting his average right now."
Hermansen says punting was never really a focus for him but a soccer background and a grandfather who was interested in him giving it a go set the stage for where he is now. He also spent some time with former NFL and Oregon punter Josh Bidwell, a family friend, during the summer and picked up a few helpful tips.
"It was great for me," Hermansen says of working with Bidwell. "He just really helped me with form and how to correct it and just how to feel if what I'm doing is wrong. Punting is really important on the drop and I didn't realize that until working with him."
The feel of making a tackle is what excites Hermansen the most when he's on the field, with a close second being the joy of booming a kick beyond the expectations of a punt returner.
All of it is better than the feeling he had on the sidelines in 2011.
"It's kind of hard to put into words," he says of that lost season. "Everything that could've gone wrong did go wrong, and everybody on the team turned against each other and gave up and began playing for themselves. There was talent beyond belief with that team but they couldn't work together."
"It was definitely not a fun time to be a Black Tornado, but everything's different now," adds Hermansen. "We still have a lot of talent but this group is all about working with each other."
North Medford will need every ounce of that camaraderie on Friday. Sheldon boasts the SWC's most prolific offense at 474 yards and 44 points per game behind the play of quarterback Joseph Kuehn and top playmakers Mitchell Herbert, Taylor Tharp, Yadie Dunmore, Kellen Strahm and Levi Rotherham.
Kuehn has completed 62 of 81 passes for 868 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception. Herbert has scored four TDs on the ground (running for 111 yards overall) and two more through the air (hauling in 19 passes for 218 yards). Tharp leads the Irish with 188 yards rushing and two TDs on 18 carries, while Dunmore has run 30 times for 137 yards and three scores. Strahm has caught 13 passes for 238 yards and Rotherham 15 for 234 yards as Kuehn's top options.
"This week's a big week to really see how much better we have gotten," says Hermansen. "We've won two games in a row but that doesn't mean we're done getting better."
Nick Janakes ranks second in the SWC at 375 yards rushing on 65 carries with five TDs, while fellow Black Tornado junior Troy Fowler has steadily kept the ball moving at quarterback. Fowler has completed 39 of 65 passes for 511 yards and five scores with two interceptions and is also averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
On the perimeter, Jared Evans, Eugene Ellis and Tristen Holmes have provided a lift with their big-play ability, while Andrew Todd has been a key fixture in both the running and passing games at tight end.
"We're not thinking the world's turned yet," says Mitchell. "Our progress has been tremendously fast and I'm really pleased about several of the things that we're seeing. Hopefully we can just continue to saw wood here."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry