New frame of mind
It took quite a while for Danny Berger to break through and earn a spot in the starting lineup for the North Medford boys basketball team.
It took less time for him to prove the opportunity was well-deserved.
Berger has developed into the Black Tornado's most consistent scorer since he was granted the green light at about this time last year, and shows no signs of taking a step back anytime soon.
"Danny's just become a special, special offensive player," says North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn. "He's a tough matchup against whoever you go with."
Part of that is because Berger has as pure of a stroke from outside as the Tornado has seen in quite some time.
It also hasn't hurt that the self-professed late bloomer has grown into the player he always hoped he would become.
Berger sprouted four inches over the past year, moving from a 6-foot-2 perimeter-based guard to a 6-6 senior wing capable of doing damage from the inside and outside.
"His ability to shoot from 3-point range and dribble drive to the basket hurts the bigger kids matched up against him," says Plankenhorn. "And when you put a smaller kid on him, he's able to use that same game but now has the length to be able to shoot over you."
It's no coincidence that North Medford's success on the court has grown with Berger.
The fourth-ranked Black Tornado (16-4, 9-1 SWC) has won nine straight games and 13 of its last 14 to thrust itself back into the state spotlight for the first time in a decade.
Berger leads North Medford with 16.3 points per game heading into tonight's key Southwest Conference clash with co-leader South Medford. Tipoff at South Medford High is at 7 p.m.
Berger also averages three rebounds and two assists per game, and is converting 51 percent of his shots from the field thus far. His efficiency from 3-point range has risen to 48 percent during SWC play.
"Coming off the bench last year and not playing many minutes, I really had to get in there and perform right away or else I'd have to come out," says Berger. "It seems like this year, even though I'm starting, I still have that same feeling to make things happen from the start."
And for the most part he has, thanks in large part to the increase in confidence he feels once he steps on the court these days.
"He's really starting to flourish from anywhere and everywhere on the court," says Plankenhorn. "Confidence is a major thing for him. A lot of that started at the end of last year when we put him in the starting lineup, and also when we played over the summer."
Berger was part of a 10-player group that won the team camp at Pepperdine University and later posted the top record at the Oregon camp.
It was during that summer run that Berger began noticing that he was able to get his jump-shot off a little easier on drives to the basket and could block shots that were a pipe-dream in prior summers.
Suddenly his guard skills were now in a 6-6 frame, but not without some challenges along the way.
"Everyone's been saying, 'You're the tallest guy on the team now, so why don't you play down low?'" says Berger. "But I've been a guard my whole life and I can't really make the switch now."
And even though he's gotten taller, Berger hasn't exactly packed on the pounds to go with it. The senior carries only 165 pounds on his new-found frame.
"It's hard to go up and out," he says. "I'm hoping that will come next."
Besides, making others match up with him has provided a big equalizer in that scenario.
Against host Lakeridge in the Lakeridge Tournament earlier this season, Berger scored 26 points and essentially put the Tornado on his back to earn a victory the team might not have been capable of in years past.
"Nobody was doing anything and Jordan (Ellis) was in foul trouble, and he looked at me in the third quarter when we were down and told me to get him the ball," recalls Plankenhorn. "He then went out and made shot after shot to get us in the game and help us keep the lead."
The scenario was the same when North traveled to Eugene to take on Sheldon on Jan. 18, with Berger taking over the game by scoring 10 of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter — including seven straight points down the stretch to fend off the Irish.
Still, Berger says nothing has compared to the satisfaction he and his teammates enjoyed after helping the Black Tornado snap a streak of 17 straight losses to rival South Medford on Jan. 26.
"It was one of our goals at the beginning of the season," Berger says of halting the Panthers' run. "It meant a lot because in the past it's been South Medford this and South Medford that all over the place and North Medford's name wasn't really out there. I think it was big for the entire program."
But not so big that earning a second win over the third-ranked Panthers tonight wouldn't be as sweet.
"The one game was good, but two games would be unreal," says Berger. "They're a good team, though, so I'm not taking anything away from them. It's going to be really tough. That first win was one of our goals and now this game is probably for the (SWC) championship. We're going to have to bring our 'A' game to compete with them."
The fact that the Black Tornado isn't discounting itself heading into tonight's contest is a victory of sorts for Plankenhorn's program. Be it South Medford or any other league-leader, North wasn't exactly brimming with confidence prior to such challenges.
"It's a really good feeling these days," Berger says of North's added confidence. "We're going out there with the mind-set that we are the team to beat. In the past few years, it hasn't been like that."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com