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Thompson awakens sleeping giant

Second-year North coach develops overachievers

Wrestling practice is about to begin at North Medford High as coach Ken Thompson grabs the door to the workout room and closes it tight.

There will be no spectators on this day.

This isn't going to be pretty, a scowling, steely-eyed Thompson says as his face disappears behind the door.

It's 3:25 p.m., and Thompson had told his wrestlers to put the mats down and get them situated 25 minutes earlier. Only four had taken on the job.

The whole team was now in Thompson's doghouse, and for the next 15 minutes they ran. And ran. And ran.

Nothing gets him more fired up than a bunch of guys goofing off, says Mike Gamble, one of the Black Tornado's top grapplers.

Thompson's impassioned, disciplined approach has ignited the Black Tornado to an unprecedented level.

In a district that Crater and Eagle Point have dominated for two decades, consider what North Medford -- which has never won a conference wrestling title since it took up the sport in the 1940s -- has accomplished in the first two months of the season:

Beaten Eagle Point in a dual meet for the first time since 1992, and added wins over traditionally tough Phoenix, Roseburg and Crook County.

Finished second at the Rogue Valley Invitational -- North's best showing in the 19-year history of the event.

Finished second at a 17-team tournament in Del Norte, Calif.

Finished sixth at the 16-team Coast Classic in North Bend. That tournament featured the state's top two Class 4A teams -- Newberg and Crater -- as well as several other squads ranked in the top 10.

Thompson is the first to admit he's got an exceptional group of seniors. Seven or eight of them occupy the 13 spots on varsity, and three of them -- Juston Menteer (125 pounds), Nick Lennert (145) and Gamble (140) -- are among the premier wrestlers in the SOC.

Still, Thompson's winning touch -- spawned by a thorough dedication to the sport, a genuine caring for his wrestlers and an emotional style of coaching that can get an entire gym full of people to clap, stomp and yell -- cannot be overlooked.

He's done a great job, pure and simple, North Medford athletic director Buzz Brazeau says. This is only Ken's second year as a head coach but his influence is already showing.

One thing Thompson has done is convince his wrestlers that they can knock heads with anyone and have a legitimate chance to win.

He has so much passion for the sport that it just sort of rubs off on you, Gamble says. He gets you to work hard in practice and then during matches he'll stick up for you. He's demanding, but he's a fun coach to wrestle for because he's into it so much.

Thompson has also done a fine job of recruiting. A campus monitor, he roams the North Medford High halls and grounds all day long.

I see all 1,800 kids, he says.

He convinced 56 of them to put on a wrestling uniform at the start of the season in November, and 45 are still out.

One thing I learned about wrestling a long time ago is that you don't need to be a physical specimen to become a successful wrestler, Thompson says. Give me a kid with a willingness to get in shape, a willingness to wrestle in the off-season and a big heart and we'll turn him into a winning wrestler.

Thompson has first-hand experience in that regard. As a freshman at Pendleton High in 1983, he won all of three matches while losing 27. As a senior he finished third at the high school state tournament, second at the state freestyle tourney and third at the Greco Roman tourney.

I was a skinny, curly-haired, 92-pounder who people laughed at when I first came out, Thompson says. But I had a coach who believed in me and kept telling me that things would get better, that if I hung in there and stayed with it, that if I wrestled in the off-season one day I'd win a lot of matches.

And he was right.

To this day, Thompson has a special place in his heart for overachievers. Fitting the category on this year's team is Scott Hoffman, a junior who has filled in at 215 pounds and heavyweight.

Hoffman didn't turn out until his freshman year and had a record similar to Thompson's rookie season, but, like his coach, he's gotten tougher.

He really got hammered his freshman year -- he couldn't win a match, Thompson says. But look at him now. Scott won his first varsity dual the other day and he's placed in three tournaments. That kid has worked his rear off in the wrestling room and the weight room, and now he's being rewarded.

Brazeau says Thomspon cares so much about his wrestlers that he'll go out of his way to keep a youngster who wants to quit or someone with a less-than-ideal attitude.

And for all the times he goes psycho, as he calls it, there are many more times when he puts his arm around a kid or pats him on the back.

He's stayed with kids and worked with kids that a lot of coaches would let go, Brazeau says. He knows some of them have a bad family life and that wrestling can be like a second family to them. All they need is some discipline and guidance and Ken is willing to provide that.

Thompson's fervid style has not always gone over well with officials. He has been told to sit down and shut up! more than once, and he got thrown out of the gym in Klamath Falls last year when he felt one of his wrestlers was being victimized by an illegal hold and nothing was done about it.

Ken has a voice that carries out to the parking lot, says Dave Adams, who preceded Thompson as the Tornado's head coach. But he's learning to tone things down a little and pick his spots. He knows those guys (officials) are doing their best, but when they make a bad call in the heat of battle it's tough to sit there and take it.

And Ken is hardly alone in that regard. How many wrestling coaches stay quiet?

Thompson is realistic enough to know that his team's chances of pushing aside Crater and winning district this weeked are no better than an ice cube surviving in a sauna.

Our goal is to take second, get a bunch of kids to the state tournament and not let them double our score, he says.

But over the long haul Thompson isn't about to concede to Crater, Eagle Point or any other team.

Someday we're going to be in the hunt for the state championship, he says. We're pointing for the top, just like Crater does every year.

You don't get into a race to take second.