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North hopes to keep momentum

Gone is a senior class of students that played a pivotal role in getting North Medford’s football program back on track.

Now, the Black Tornado’s focus is on continuing to build upon that foundation.

After being saddled with losing records for seven straight seasons, North Medford took a giant leap in 2013 by earning the Southwest Conference championship. The Black Tornado enters this season having won 12 of its last 14 SWC games but must rely on an almost entirely new cast to retain that momentum after graduating 30 seniors.

“With this group of kids, we’re not worried that they haven’t been on the field and gotten salty as much as a group as we’d like them to be,” said North Medford assistant head coach Jered Gail. “We’re really excited about this group because they’re hungry. When you haven’t played a lot as backups, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’ve waited a long time and it’s our turn.’ I think they’re ready to go.”

Gail has been in charge of North Medford’s offseason training — with help from a veteran staff of assistant coaches — with head coach Mike Mitchell in Sweden since May.

Mitchell coached the Uppsala 86ers to a 7-3 mark in Europe’s first division and was named one of three finalists for coach of the year. Prior to his first season at North Medford, Mitchell also spent the 2012 offseason coaching professional football in Croatia.

“We hear from him routinely, it’s an everyday or other day type of thing,” said Gail, who expects Mitchell to return prior to the team’s Sept. 4 opener. “He’s on top of what’s going on and we just look at it as business as usual.”

Gail previously served 10 years as an assistant coach at Grants Pass High and is in his fifth year overall with the Black Tornado, including all of Mitchell’s tenure.

“He gave me the car keys while he’s gone,” said Gail. “My job when he gets back is the car is running well and it’s full of gas.”

Helping create a smooth ride thus far has been a core group of returners, led by senior running back/linebacker Will Spence. The 6-foot, 185-pound standout enters his third varsity season and will be called upon to provide leadership on both sides of the football. Last year, Spence rushed 40 times for 255 yards and three touchdowns and caught 13 passes for 242 yards and one TD.

“Will is our most dynamic kid,” said Gail. “Our offense is going to go through Will, he’s going to pack a lot of the load offensively. He’s as good of a linebacker for us defensively, too, so figuring out a way to use him appropriately will be the key.”

Spence is joined by senior receiver/safety Tucker Barry as the only two-way returning starters. Barry hauled in 14 passes for 154 yards and two TDs as a member of last year’s deep receiving corps and expects to be a top option in the Tornado’s high-octane attack.

The player responsible for guiding North’s offense is still to be determined, with senior Greyson Wolff and junior Chase Warren vying for the right to replace record-setting quarterback Troy Fowler. Both have junior varsity experience and would be worthy options for the Tornado, according to Gail and Mitchell.

“Leadership is as important as putting the ball where it needs to be,” said Gail. “Both those guys understand that and they’re both taking huge strides in that direction.”

Gail said the plan was to make a decision on a starting quarterback after an Aug. 28 jamboree to allow the team to better prepare for its opener against Fortuna High in California.

Either quarterback stands to gain a boost from a sturdy offensive line that is light on varsity experience but has more girth than in recent years.

“We’re going to look the part up front a little more than we have in the last couple years,” said Gail. “We’re definitely beefier, stronger.”

Defensively, returning starter Tre Holmes (6-0, 270), a junior tackle, headlines North’s front wall of defense with senior teammates Michael Polataivao and David Patstone, who each saw considerable action last year.

That front group will be asked to shoulder the load a little more early on to help a deep cast of inexperienced linebackers get up to speed with Spence.

Seniors Jonathan Collins, Wyatt Westfall, Derek Kinsey, Justin Goslin and junior Praise Villamu give the Tornado plenty of talent and athleticism at linebacker.

“We’ve got some big shoes to fill at linebacker but I’m confident we can do it,” said Gail.

The secondary expects to be solid with Barry and Wolff as returning starters at safety, with Mason Barone providing a key alternative at safety and as a receiver with fellow junior Preston Johnson.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry