When Garrett Byrd steps on the Spiegelberg Stadium turf tonight, there's no question he belongs there.
That he's not in football pads for North Medford is the big surprise, and something the 6-foot, 190-pound boys soccer standout hears all the time.
"All of my friends are always telling me to play football and during games sometimes guys on the other team ask me why I don't play football," Byrd says with a laugh, "but I started playing soccer when I was 4 or 5 and I've just played ever since. I never really thought about playing football because I just love playing soccer so much."
Byrd's physical presence, combined with superb speed and agility, has been a boon for the Black Tornado program since he stepped on the pitch. He was a first-team all-conference midfielder one year ago after notching seven goals and seven assists, and this season he's leading North Medford in goals (eight) and assists (seven) through only eight games.
"He's absolutely much different than what you normally see outside of Portland," says North Medford head coach Michael Belzberg. "He'd be wearing a helmet playing on Friday nights with his size, but he's got some of the best touch I've seen for a high school player. He can put the ball wherever he needs to and he can finish, and that's pretty rare to have that kind of ability for someone his size."
It's definitely something Byrd says serves as an advantage while on the pitch.
"It helps me a lot, physically how I can hold off a lot of defenders," he admits. "The bigger you are, you can use your body to your advantage by just creating space and keeping defenders away."
With Byrd leading the charge, the senior-dominated Black Tornado has built a 5-1-2 overall record and 2-1 mark in Southern Oregon Hybrid play entering tonight's key clash with crosstown rival South Medford (4-1-2, 3-0 SOH) at 7 at Spiegelberg Stadium.
North Medford ranks second at the 6A level to McKay with 27 goals scored thus far, while the Black Tornado and Panthers have each allowed only six goals overall.
"Tuesday's going to be a super long day because we're all so excited to get out there and play," says Byrd. "The North-South game is the biggest game to look forward to all season. Both teams usually are of great quality and the severity of the game obviously helps make the rivalry what it is. There's usually a lot riding on the game for the conference title so those games are always big."
North Medford swept the series last year, using a go-ahead goal by Byrd to claim the first meeting, en route to the SOH title while South Medford did likewise in 2011. North won once and battled South to a scoreless draw in the other meeting in 2010 when the Medford teams tied for the league title.
Since 2006, a Medford team has won or finished second in the conference in all but one season — and that 2009 campaign saw South Medford still play for the state title.
Where North Medford has hit a wall is in the state playoffs. The Tornado has been ousted in the first round during five of its last six appearances. North suffered a second-round exit in 2011, and has been outscored a combined 19-1 in those season-ending contests.
With Byrd surrounded by a cast that boasts 12 other seniors, including all-conference standouts Benito Torres-Mata, Christian Siordia, Austin Schoenmann and Louis Michelon, the hope this year is the Tornado can finally get over the hump.
"I think this year is a chance to have a run at the state tournament," says Belzberg, "and these games like the ones Tuesday are a good test for what they can do and rise to the occasion. I'm proud of them all so far and Garrett's been spearheading things and really motivating everyone to keep all our goals in check and stay focused."
One thing that has helped most all of the Tornado, according to Byrd, is how many seniors the team has on the roster and the chemistry that's been built over so many years together.
"We definitely have a sense of urgency," says Byrd. "There's no next year for us so we've got to focus right here and now and make the most of our opportunity."
As for the secret to his team's high-scoring attack, Byrd sticks to the old adage that you can't score if you don't shoot.
"Offensively we're moving the ball really well and creating a lot of chances," he says, "and the more chances you get, the more chances you have to finish. We've got a lot of skill guys who have played their whole lives and a lot of them I've played with since we were young so we have a lot of chemistry. When we get chances, we do our best to finish them."
Belzberg insists that Byrd has all the makings of someone who can continue to shine at the next level, and the versatile 17-year-old has worked hard to become a well-rounded performer.
"I pride myself a lot in the mental aspect of the game," says Byrd. "Some people say the biggest part of the game is being mentally strong and that's what I try to be. No matter how the game's going, if you're winning or losing, you've got to keep your focus on the game and I pride myself on my ability to focus on the next task and the next play."
And, in doing so, that leaves little time to focus on any nonsense that he should play football — or at least the American version of football.
"I just couldn't do it, I couldn't give up soccer," says Byrd. "I love it too much. I love how everyone's involved in soccer. And when you come together as a team and are all playing well and moving the ball, there's not a better feeling than that."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry