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Streak is on the line tonight in city rivalry

When North Medford's boys basketball team rallied from a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat South Medford 46-45 on Feb. 1, 2000, that game was already bound to go down as a memorable one in the cross-town rivalry.

Black Tornado fans had no way of knowing back then, however, how memorable.

Ever since then, North Medford hasn't been able to recapture that magic and the Panthers have dominated the series — winning 16 straight heading into tonight's Southwest Conference opener at South Medford High.

And as if a streak of 16 straight losses to your biggest rival isn't enough, the Black Tornado has had to live with the fact that most of the matchups haven't been close. South has won by an average of about 28 points in that span.

"I think we really thought we had a shot back in the (Ryan) Lucas and Ben Running years when they were together and (Kendall) Gielow was a sophomore and on our side (during the 2003-04 season)," says second-year North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn, "but we just never showed up. We haven't really had a shot since then."

That could all change at 7 tonight, however.

North Medford enters the game winners of four straight, including its first Abby's Holiday Classic title in 13 years, and brimming with confidence.

On the flip side, South Medford is looking to rebound from an up-and-down performance at the Les Schwab Invitational that left the Panthers with their first two-game losing streak since a flu-bug hampered their efforts in the 2003 state tournament.

"I'm certain that North is chomping at the bit to play us," says 20th-year South Medford coach Dennis Murphy. "And to their credit, they've done a good job to this point. It should be a heckuva game."

A big reason for the added optimism on the north side of town is because the Black Tornado returned its entire starting lineup this season, including three-year starters Jordan Ellis, Michael Williams and Josh Pecktol.

Ellis is averaging a team-high 17 points thanks to a recent surge in his performance, with senior Danny Berger around 16 points and Pecktol at 11. Williams, a senior point guard, adds about eight points and four assists per game.

All have been instrumental in helping North average almost 71 points. The Tornado has twice reached 90 points or more, including a 100-94, double-overtime win at Churchill Thursday. The last time North scored as many as 90 points was in 2004 in a 90-76 win over Wilson in the Abby's tournament.

"I definitely know we have a team that's capable of winning basketball games against anybody," says Plankenhorn, whose team was picked second to South in the preseason SWC coaches' poll. "What we've talked about doing is playing our best game (tonight), and it's going to take that against a quality basketball team like South. But we definitely do have the kids to win this game. I think we've drawn a lot closer."

Another big reason for North's optimism is the fact that Kyle Singler is now exhibiting his skills on a national stage at Duke University, and the Panthers can't call upon a host of 6-foot-7 post players.

"He's been one special player who's come through their system that may never come through again," says Plankenhorn. "I know Michael Harthun is a special player, too, but Duke is the place. To have one of your kids go there and start as a freshman and do all he's done so far, leading the team in s coring and rebounding, is unreal."

Still, Plankenhorn says he has much respect for what Harthun and E.J. Singler can do on the basketball court as Division I recruits.

"I wouldn't take anything away from them even though they've lost a couple games," he says.

In reality, those two straight losses came against two of the best teams in the state in Oregon City and Grant, and that came on the heels of a twin over one of California's best teams (De La Salle) and Beaverton at the LSI.

"We're not where we'd like to be by any means," says Murphy, whose team fell into double-digit holes in both losses before late rallies fell short. "We came back and have worked really hard at making ourselves better because we surely didn't finish off the Les Schwab the way we would've hoped."

The Panthers' defensive presence — or lack thereof — and offensive breakdowns disturbed Murphy the most in the final two roun ds of the LSI.

"I just don't think good basketball teams allow that to happen, not to the extent that we did," he says.

Enduring such growing pains may be good for South in the future, but Plankenhorn wouldn't mind at least one more off game by the Panthers before they began their resurgence.

"It would be real big for the kids to halt the streak to South," says the North coach. "But the overall part of it would be one win in 15 conference games, and that's the part we're playing up."

For his part, Murphy understands the tenuous nature of his team's streak and how some may feel it will soon come to an end.

"This is just good for the school district and good for both of us," Murphy says of North's upswing. "Like all rivalry games, there's a lot of things you throw out the window. I surely understand their thinking that they have a good chance to beat us, and if we don't play our game that very well may happen."

"But you're also talking about 16 games in a row. We surely don't want to give that up easily," he adds. "That's a pretty good streak."

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SOUTH MEDFORD LOST more than a pair of games over the holiday break, it also lost one of its starting guards.

Senior Gonzalo Duran-Chaparro, who was averaging five points per game, left the team following the Panthers' 62-59 win over Sunset on Dec. 21. He refused to join the Panther huddle three times in the final two minutes of that game, and did not travel with the team for the Les Schwab Invitational

"He's chosen to leave the team for personal reasons and that's where we are," says Murphy.

Duran-Chaparro was a reserve on last year's state championship team, and his ability to take pressure off Harthun with his ballhandling and perimeter scoring was to be a key this season.

"We definitely suffered with him leaving," says Murphy. "Some of the other guys have to step up now to make us better."

Senior Zach Haveman moved into the starting lineup at the LSI, where the Panthers also got a big boost from senior Griff Boyd in the post after Conner Egan suffered an ankle injury and missed the De La Salle and Oregon City games.

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THE GIRLS BASKETBALL teams at North Medford and South Medford have their own streaks on the line tonight, with the Black Tornado entering the game having won 10 straight over the Panthers.

South Medford's last win in the cross-town rivalry came in 2003 but, much like the Tornado boys, the Panther girls have signaled a resurgence in their ability to compete. South leads the SWC in scoring (66 ppg) and scored 92 and 86 points, respectively, in back-to-back wins over Eagle Point and Klamath Union in mid-December.

North Medford counters with experience and a stifling defense that is allowing only 40 points per game.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com