North looks back to move forward
Through all the flirtations with the passing game and the spread offense, there always seemed to be something missing for North Medford football coach Jeff Olson.
That element, however, will be on full display in Olson's fourth season at the helm.
Led by an offensive line averaging around 240 pounds per player, North Medford expects to get back to what made the Black Tornado programs of the past so successful.
"We're going to get back to running the football a lot more," says Olson. "We have to get back to our comfort zone as coaches and get under center more often and establish an identity."
That emphasis is music to the ears of North Medford senior tailback Colin Sowers and the rest of the Tornado's stable of running backs. Junior Gage Jacobson and seniors Mark Dickison and Jake Hernandez also expect to carry the football behind a line that returns Robert Ross, who moves to center, and right guard Mychal DeSoto.
Left guard Marshall Bertrand and tackles Ben Cabral and Drew Gibson fill out the physical front five.
"Obviously I'm excited about it because I get to run the ball more, and that's what I love," says Sowers, who averaged 5 yards per carry after running for 347 yards on 70 carries last season.
A midseason concussion limited Sowers' productivity, but North's second-leading rusher has high hopes of helping shoulder the burden for a Black Tornado squad
that finished second-to-last in rushing yards a year ago in the Southwest Conference.
"It's not like an entirely new offense or anything, we're just mixing it up a little more," adds the 5-foot-11, 180-pound standout. "We have some new plays and formations, and there's just a different attitude right now."
Olson says he's excited about the possibilities involved with Sowers in the backfield again.
"We're very fortunate to get him back," says the fourth-year head coach. "He can do a lot of things for us. He's got terrific hands, good speed and can do anything you ask of him."
Sowers' absence during the summer as catcher for the Medford Mustangs, who were runner-up at the American Legion World Series, allowed for Jacobson, Dickison and Hernandez to gain valuable reps in the backfield.
The decision to emphasize the run was made last spring, partially after it became clear quarterback Matt Maurer would not be returning under center for his senior year.
"Just playing three sports is a lot on me, especially the way I play sports,' says Maurer, who is also a highly-recruited pitcher in baseball and key small forward in basketball. "I needed a break and football is a sport that beats me up more than anything, especially with the way I run at people instead of running away from them like you're supposed to."
Maurer, who has narrowed his list down to "five or six" college suitors, says he plans to play basketball in the winter. He hopes to use this fall to make college visits, including to LSU and several interested Pac-10 Conference programs.
Maurer's absence means turning the ball over to junior Brian Reese and sophomore Zach Tanner, who are both capable but might enjoy an easier transition to the varsity level with a little help from their friends.
"Certainly we lose the experience and competitive edge that Matt and Jordan (Ellis) gave us last year (at quarterback)," says Olson, "but at the same time, we've got to move on. This happens to every school every year. It just creates an opportunity for the next guy."
The 6-foot, 185-pound Reese guided the junior varsity team last season and has been North Medford's main quarterback during passing camps for the past two summers.
"He's a competitor and a fiery kid," Olson says of Reese. "He loves the game and loves the position of quarterback. He's a good athlete with good speed, but he also plays within his limitations, too. He's not going to do things that he's not capable of."
It's that sense of understanding limitations and working around them that has Sowers confident the Tornado will thrive offensively this season.
"He's younger so you can't put the spotlight right on him, just let him ease it in with the great runners we have," says Sowers. "Gage and Mark and I, we can really do some damage, so I think it's the best approach to do what we're doing. It's not about keeping the Tornado tradition as much as it's about getting the yards to win the game."
And winning the games is the ultimate goal, especially since North Medford hasn't advanced to the state playoffs since 2005. That also was the Black Tornado's last winning season.
"We've not been to the playoffs now for three straight years and that is just not acceptable," says Olson. "That's certainly been the goal for this year. There's no doubt that the kids know football has not lived up to the standards set forth by previous North Medford football programs and want to get back to that level."
Whereas past teams have said the right things, Sowers believes the Tornado is doing more with actions this year to make that turnaround a possibility.
"We keep saying, 'Hey, we've got the team,' and we always fall short," says the senior. "I don't know exactly what to say, why this is the season besides, we've got new stuff and it's not just about having new players this year."
While Olson says the offensive scheme is "a work in progress," the defense appears set with a bevy of talented linebackers and a sturdy front line.
Sowers, Jacobson and Cory Haggans return at linebacker and will get plenty of support from Hernandez and Zach Willits. With Ross and Cameron Tolentino returning at defensive tackle and Dickison returning on the end, there's a lot of experience and confidence in the front seven.
"We're going to be faster than we were last year and a little bit bigger than we were," says Olson, who will assume defensive coordinator responsibilities full time now that Toby Walker has moved to Phoenix High. "I'm feeling really good about this group."
Olson expects to be able to apply more pressure on teams this year as he sets his athletes free and says the players welcome the chance to be a more aggressive than they were asked to be a year ago.
"We're going to put all our cards on the table, if that's what it takes," he says. "This could be our last good shot at it before everything falls apart. This is the year in my eyes that we really need to do it."
"I'm not saying this just because it's my senior year," adds Sowers, "it's just been too long since we've been to the playoffs and had a winning season and had the reputation as a winning team. We don't want to be that team that people circle thinking it's an easy win or anything like that. The coaches and the school and the community seem to agree that this has to be the year, and we've got to be willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com