North senior Skylar Mlasko delivers a pass during a recent practice. Mlasko started at tight end last year but has moved to quarterback. - Jamie Lusch

Gung-ho Black Tornado aims high for 2007 season

Coming off a less-than-satisfying 2006 season, the football team at North Medford High was eager to get things started for the 2007 campaign.

How eager? The Black Tornado players made their way to the practice field at 12:01 a.m. on the first day football practices could officially begin for the fall.

Whether that enthusiasm translates to more wins this season is yet to be seen, but second-year coach Jeff Olson appreciates it nonetheless.

"This is my 25th year in coaching and this ranks among the most impressive offseasons I've ever been a part of," says the former Southern Oregon University coach. "We don't have a lot of returning kids and we don't have a lot of big kids, we've just got a lot of kids who've worked their tails off since last November to get ready for this season."

Of the 19 athletic programs at North Medford, 18 advanced to the state playoffs last year. The lone holdout was the football team, and that didn't sit well with anyone involved in the program.

The Black Tornado posted a 4-5 overall record and tied for fourth place in the Southwest Conference at 2-3, losing out on a playoff spot due to a tiebreaking loss to South Eugene.

And while Olson wasn't making any excuses about last season, four of the Tornado's five losses were by a touchdown or less, and all five setbacks came against teams ranked in the top 10.

"When you're a good team, you make your breaks," Olson says of last year, "and we didn't do it."

This year's cast is a little lighter and faster than in years past, forcing Olson to adjust the cornerstone approach that has been North Medford football over the years.

"We're not the bread-and-butter North Medford system with its (smashmouth) style," says Olson. "We can't force-feed an offense or defense if we don't have those types of people to do it."

Surrounded by mostly 5-foot-10, 170-pounders, Olson instead says North Medford will take advantage of its athleticism and mobility this season and spread the ball out a little more than in years past.

That bodes well for returning tailback Jacob Colmenero, who split time in the backfield last season but still managed to rush 78 times for 528 yards and three touchdowns. The 5-8, 170-pound senior has a bulldog mentality and the quickness to take the corner on a defense, and he has impressed Olson with his "tremendous heart."

Complementing Colmenero in the backfield will be senior transfer Quinton Walker, who played a significant role for Phoenix High last season. Walker (5-8, 170) led the Pirates in rushing with more than 1,000 yards and contributed 1,637 all-purpose yards last season as a first-team all-Skyline Conference selection.

Who will be charged with getting the ball to the talented twosome is yet to be determined. Senior Skylar Mlasko had a solid offseason and is scheduled to move from tight end to his more natural quarterback slot.

Also in the mix at quarterback are junior Jordan Ellis, who started at receiver last season but was the freshman signal caller two years ago, and sophomore Matt Maurer, who missed most of the offseason program after helping guide the Medford Mustangs to the American Legion AAA Northwest Regional.

All three provide plenty of options for the Tornado, with Ellis in line to play some quarterback regardless of whether he gets the starting nod.

"We're doing some things offensively where he may get some snaps at quarterback," says Olson. "He's just a terrific athlete, and we need to get the ball in his hands any way we can."

Returning all-league selection Sharif Young anchors the offensive line. Young (5-10, 195) will be joined by senior leader Jason Weisz, who started at fullback last season. Jesse Munday (5-9, 190), Adam Higgins (6-3, 205) and Michael Knight (5-10, 205) stand to round out the group.

"We're not going to be big, but we're pretty athletic," Olson says of the offensive line.

Besides Ellis, the receiving corps will be led by returning speedster Almeir Barlow and a host of newcomers that includes Isaac Silafau, whom Olson says might have been the best player on the JV team last year.

Defensively, the Black Tornado aims to use its athleticism as much as possible with a ball-hawking style full of interchangeable parts.

Young is slated to be joined on the line by Matt Shanahan, Bryant Hall, Destry Brammer, Cam Gentry and Mark Dickison, whom Olson says has "a heckuva motor" and could play the rushing end role that Kris Carey excelled in last year.

One aspect of this year's team that would fit with past teams is North's linebacker crew, which will be strong as ever. Weisz returns with Jacob Hagemaier, and the group gets a boost with the return from a back injury of senior Luke Vargas. All-state baseball player Andrew Jones also stands to see some time on defense in this group.

Ellis started every game at free safety last year, and Olson says the junior has really matured in his ability to finish off plays. Brock Heaton will look to complement Ellis at the other safety position, with North blessed with an abundance of defensive backs in Walker, Barlow, Colmenero, Justin Severson, David Formolo, Colin Sowers, Josh Pecktol and Dane Arispe.

"It's going to be quite a battle (in the secondary)," says Olson. "I think we've got some guys who can compete."

Which at the end of the day is all Olson really is interested in at this point.

"They're all little itty-bitty guys, but you can't put a tape measure on these guys' hearts," the coach says of his team. "There's a lot of want-to in this group. It's fun to go to practice with these guys."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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