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North Medford prepares for tough opener

If there's one thing the North Medford boys basketball team has thrived upon this season, it's overcoming a challenge.

The Black Tornado hadn't won the Abby's Holiday Classic in 13 years, but finally cleared that hurdle this season.

North Medford hadn't beaten cross-town rival South Medford in 17 straight games, but checked that off the list in late January.

The last time the Tornado finished as one of the top two teams in its conference was when it won the Southern Oregon Conference title during the 1998-99 season. This year, North finished as runner-up to Southwest Conference champion South Medford by two games.

So when the brackets were finally set for the Class 6A state playoffs, the Black Tornado had to be wondering what further obstacles it might face as it strives to make a return to the state tournament for the first time since 1999.

Sure enough, North Medford didn't have to wait long for yet another challenge.

The Black Tornado faces the tough task of beating a quality nonconference opponent twice in one season at 6:30 tonight when it plays host to Clackamas, the No. 3 seed out of the Three Rivers League.

"We might have played one of our best games of the year when we beat them down here," North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn said of his team's 85-61 triumph over the Cavaliers on Dec. 28. "We can't expect the same thing to happen (tonight). It's a different situation and we know we have to play our best basketball game to beat them."

In that early season meeting, which served as the championship game of the Abby's Holiday Classic, North Medford (18-7) drained 11 of 18 shots from beyond the arc and 32 of 52 overall (67 percent).

The win was the Tornado's first of the season over a Class 6A top-10 team, and certainly left a lasting impression on Clackamas coach Jeff Bair.

"We can take an awful lot from that game," said Bair, whose team fell behind 41-22 by halftime in December. "For the last two years we've played North Medford at their holiday tournament, and what impresses me most is their balance between (Josh) Pecktol and (Jordan) Ellis and (Michael) Williams and (Danny) Berger. North is just a very explosive team."

The Cavaliers (16-7) and Black Tornado are very similar in terms of offensive balance and willingness to dial up from long distance. Clackamas hit 10 of 19 3-pointers in the championship game and had five players score at least seven points.

"It's not a one-guy show for them," said Plankenhorn. "They're a lot like us in how we play the game. They cause the same problems we cause because you don't really know who is going to score the basketball on a given night."

While Berger (16 points per game), Ellis (15), Pecktol (12) and Williams (8) lead North Medford in scoring, Clackamas counters with five players averaging around 10 points per game in 5-foot-8 junior Andrew Earnest, 5-10 sophomore Spencer Bankofier, 6-2 senior Jake Mauermann, 6-5 senior Curtis Papenfuss and 6-5 senior Craig Seiler.

Mauermann and Papenfuss each were named to the Abby's all-tournament team, while Seiler did not travel with the team for the tournament but is back in the fold this time around.

Bair said each team's ability to go on scoring spurts makes them a dangerous matchup, especially since both squads have a penchant for putting up 3-pointers.

Although, he added, that can be a double-edged sword.

"We tend to like to shoot the 3 and do shoot it pretty well," said Bair, "but sometimes when you live by the 3 you might also die by it. In Game 1 (with North Medford) that's what happened to us is we started to shoot some ill-advised 3-pointers and North Medford was just so good at capitalizing on the other end."

Both coaches view tonight's game as a pretty even matchup, although the fact that North Medford is able to play on its home court is seen as a big advantage by each.

"One of the big factors we're going to try to do is minimize the crowd noise as best as possible," said Bair as his team prepared for a shoot-around Tuesday night at the North gym. "Medford really supports its high school athletes so we've got to kind of come into the game with the mentality that it's going to be us against the world. We need to be mentally tough to at least have a chance at the end of the game."

North Medford is 11-1 on its home court this season, making it that much more important that the Tornado finished where it did in the conference standings to assure a home-court advantage for the playoffs.

"We were hoping for a league title, but at the same time we were hoping to have some home playoff games and be able to get going in our own gym," said Plankenhorn.

"I think our kids are excited and are looking forward to putting their best foot forward here for the stretch run," added the coach. "Our challenge is will we show up on the defensive end and rebound the basketball. When we do those two things, we're a very good basketball team."

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