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North Medford eager to take the next step

If the North Medford boys basketball team is supposed to be overwhelmed by making its first trip to the state tournament in almost a decade, the fifth-ranked Black Tornado certainly isn't showing it.

Tuesday simply was another practice day for North Medford, and the same is expected today.

The only difference is players and coaches find themselves getting a few extra pats on the back these days, but that's done nothing to deter the Black Tornado from the task at hand.

"Just walking around town and around the school people have been coming up to me telling me how excited they are that we're going up (to state) since this is the first time in a while," said North senior Michael Williams. "It's been kinda nice ... but we're not satisfied with just getting there."

That in itself exemplifies the difference in this year's squad at North.

The Tornado (20-7) has played with remarkable confidence all season and continues to clear obstacles with a why-not-us mentality perfect for a team so grounded in the present and unaffected by the past.

Already this season, North has secured its highest league finish and first state tournament berth since 1999 and its first playoff win since 1995. Saturday's 70-56 rout of Jesuit marked only the second time in school history that North has notched multiple playoff wins in a season, the other coming in 1989 when it claimed the consolation title.

Instead of being concerned with history, the Tornado has gone about making history.

"I think if you're hungry and committed to each other and believe in each other as teammates, you can get anything done," said second-year North Medford coach Scott Plankenhorn.

It's a philosophy that has served the team well thus far, so why not keep it going as the Black Tornado prepares for Thursday's quarterfinal matchup against second-ranked Barlow (23-3)? Tipoff is at 3:15 p.m.

"We've got to take it one game at a time, but I don't think anyone is satisfied," added Williams. "I think we're all still pretty hungry."

In the Bruins, however, North Medford will be facing a team that's just as hungry. The Mount Hood Conference runners-up last advanced to the state tournament in 2003, even though they won league titles in 2004, '05 and '06.

"Obviously there's a lot of excitement here," said Barlow coach Tom Johnson on Tuesday. "We were league champs for three years and couldn't get down to Eugene, so for our program it's pretty gratifying that we were able to get down there this year."

Like North Medford, the Bruins boast tremendous balance on offense. Five different players have scored 18 or more points in a game this season, and five average at least eight points.

Mat Delaunay, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, leads the team with 13 points per game, but 6-3 senior guard Dustin Jones — nephew of former Duck and NBA player Fred Jones — is a close second (12 ppg).

Garrett Strasburg, a 6-5 senior post, averages nine points and is slightly ahead of 5-11 junior guard Drew Johnson (8.5 ppg) — the coach's son — and 6-6 senior post Jeremy Jones (8 ppg).

"We've had different guys on different nights step up for us," said coach Johnson. "Obviously, that's been to our advantage that we haven't had to depend on one person all season long. We're a little like North Medford in that way."

As further testament to Barlow's depth, reserve players Jacob Kopra (6-4 junior post) and Robbie Nielson (6-3 junior guard) scored 17 and 13 points, respectively, in the Bruins playoff-opening 84-38 win over Newberg. Dustin Jones also comes off the bench for Barlow.

"We don't lose a whole lot when we go to our bench," said coach Johnson.

The Bruins also boast four players 6-4 or taller — including 6-5 senior post Seiji Blume, who averages a team-high six rebounds. Blume is the son of former NBA player Ray Blume.

"We've been the smaller team all year, so that's not a surprise to us," said Plankenhorn. "We're going to have to come out and play our game and commit ourselves to doing what we need to do."

While Barlow has been solid in cleaning the glass as a team thus far, Tom Johnson said it's been his team's play on defense lately that has made the biggest difference. The Bruins allowed only 38 points to Newberg and 36 to McNary in their playoff wins.

"Certainly the last two weeks we have played our best defense," said the coach, adding that his team will need to take that up another level to combat North Medford's potent attack.

"They have so many offensive weapons with (Danny) Berger and (Jordan) Ellis and (Josh) Pecktol and (Michael) Williams," said coach Johnson. "They just have a lot of kids you have to be conscious of defending. If we're going to be able to stay in the game, we're going to have to defend honestly and rebound."

That same sentiment was echoed by Plankenhorn, who is just as impressed with Barlow's balance and athleticism.

"We know we're going to have to play one of our best games to compete and have a chance to win," said the North coach. "But at this time of year, that's what you should expect so it's not a surprise to us."

And even though his players haven't played under the microscope of a state-tourney setting, Plankenhorn has faith that his team will continue to rise to the challenge.

"It's going to be a battle, I know that," he added. "But I think we're ready for it."

Berger and Ellis each lead the team at 15.5 points per game, while Pecktol averages 12.4 points and 4.8 rebounds and Williams chips in with 8.2 points and five assists per game.

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