North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
If it seems like Edmund Polataivao plays with a chip on his shoulder, well, it's because he does.
When you're the youngest boy in a large Samoan family — he's No. 9 of 11 overall — nothing comes easy and you've got to learn to fight for what you want.
But, like many on the fifth-ranked North Medford football team, that chip also comes from being punched in the mouth a year ago and not having the chance to adequately punch back.
"Last year the season didn't really go that good so I just kept that chip on my shoulder and took it into this year," says the 16-year-old Polataivao.
However it's happened, the 6-foot, 195-pounder certainly has come on strong for North Medford. He was an honorable mention all-Southwest Conference linebacker a year ago and a first-team selection this time around.
Not only is he one of the leading tacklers for an athletic Black Tornado defense, he's also secured an interception in three of the last four games for the SWC champions heading into Friday's Class 6A football state playoff game against sixth-ranked Oregon City.
"He's an impact player," says North Medford head coach Mike Mitchell. "It's not like he's just another guy, he goes out and makes things happen. When he goes on the field a lot of good things happen. We think he's a guy that can make a difference on any down."
Or on either side of the field. Polataivao was expected to be a dual threat on defense and offense this year, but a knee injury suffered in a win against Sheldon cost him a couple games and the emergence of sophomore fullback Will Spence allowed him to focus on what he truly enjoys.
"I could play both ways but I love hitting more than I love running the ball," says Polataivao. "I love the feeling of when I hit people. Linebacker means everything to me. It's a fun position because I love hitting."
That love is most likely one-sided given Polataivao's penchant for big hits this season. The junior has rocked more than a few ball-carriers thus far and helped set a physical, emotional tone for his defense.
"When he's in there he's a definite catalyst to the defense," says Mitchell. "He's got that button that when he turns it on, he's hard to stop. I'd like him to have that button pressed even more if I could but that's because I know how much we feed off of his energy."
That energy is almost always positive from Polataivao, whose on-field mean streak belies his true off-field character. For the most part, he's easy-going and one of the first to joke around with teammates.
And why shouldn't he be having fun? North Medford is 9-1 overall and has seemingly erased the bitter taste for a program that hadn't had a winning season or conference title since 2005.
"This is the greatest time of my life right now," says Polataivao. "I love playing with this team and I love this school. This team means everything for me. I wouldn't give it up for anything."
"I'm proud of where we're at right now," he adds. "The defense is doing pretty good and coming out strong. The coaches are coming up with good game plans and we're just trying to execute it right for them. Our defense has been crazy."
While no coach is ever satisfied, North Medford defensive coordinator Chris Kincaid definitely is happy to have the option of Polataivao, who has only played football for four years, on his side.
"He is a big-time playmaker," says the veteran assistant coach. "We talk about wanting players to make plays and he's definitely a guy that does that. He has come along and in the last four weeks he's been just unbelievable. We just can't afford not to have him on the field."
"First of all I think he has great instincts," adds Kincaid. "That's just something you can't teach. He's also a very dedicated player and a very physical player. And when you get that combination, you've got a guy that's gonna make plays and that's him."
Besides teammates and family members pushing him each day to be better — Polataivao insists he wouldn't be where he is today without both — the linebacker attributes some of his success to a mid-freshman year transfer to the Portland area. While at Parkrose High, Polataivao trained with the Eastside Tsunami Rugby Club — at the behest of his father and brother — and learned a lot about himself and a lot that he's transferred to the gridiron.
"All that training paid off," he says. "Tackling drills was all we worked on in rugby, just tackling shoulder to chest and grabbing legs. Speed, agility "» all that was part of it and all of it has really helped me."
And all hopefully will continue to be on display for weeks to come for a Tornado team that last reached the quarterfinals in that fateful 2005 campaign.
"It's pretty hard to be patient because we've been dreaming for this and working hard for it," says Polataivao. "I'd love to see us go win a championship and get a ring but we just have to fight through these next few games and if we make it there we make it there."