The North Medford boys basketball team is enjoying a significant and sudden resurgence in 2023. After falling 54-61 to Nelson in their Abby’s Holiday Tournament finale on December 29, their last game of 2022, the Tornado boys record had sunk to 1-9 on the season. Scott Plankenhorn’s team had a tough Lakeridge team up next on the schedule followed by another grueling Southwest Conference schedule that promised to afford no let-up for North over the next few months. He may not have admitted it at the time, but Plankenhorn’s hopes for a 17th straight playoff appearance for North Medford seemed to be dimming quickly. Since that time, the Tornado has rattled off three straight victories, including a huge 65-62 home win over pre-season SWC favorite, Grants Pass in both team’s conference opener. They now sit atop the SWC, tied with South Medford at 2-0. Even though it’s early in the conference season, their playoff chances seem immeasurably better.
There were a lot of questions coming into this season after North Medford graduated eight seniors from their 2021-22 team that went 21-4, and finished the season 10th in the OSAA 6A rankings. That senior group included two first-team, and three honorable mention All-Southwest Conference selections, and five of those athletes are now playing college athletics. Undeniably, there were big shoes to fill and bigger questions to answer coming into the 2022-23 season. The questions only got bigger and the answers more difficult when Coach Plankenhorn learned in early November that they would be without senior guard Antonio “Tony” Orozco for the first couple months of the season due to eligibility issues. Orozco was one of very few returning North Medford players with significant varsity minutes and a handful of varsity starts under his belt. Orozco earned All-Southwest Conference honorable-mention honors and had several electrifying performances last season, including a school-record eight three-pointers at Roseburg late in the season. So, the expectations were high for Orozco as Plankenhorn was looking to his senior leader to shoulder a large part of the scoring load for North.
Coach Plankenhorn pivoted and juggled his line-up searching for a combination that could provide some consistency and, at least partially, fill the gap left by Orozco’s absence. He inserted sophomore Keenan Stewart in Orozco’s starting spot and along with other tweaks, continued to look for the winning combinations. The North Medford roster is filled with very good basketball players and athletes, and many have stepped up for the Black Tornado. Junior Houston Klug has had several big scoring nights, averaging 11.5 points/game and has shown great athleticism on both ends of the floor. Junior Andrew Plankenhorn and senior Davis Carr have shown deft touch from behind the arc, especially in big moments. Senior big men Corbin Young and Owen Scott always play hard and have done well grabbing rebounds and protecting the rim. Senior Ty Carpenter plays extremely physical and has made numerous huge hustle plays for North, and finally a group of talented sophomores including Stewart, Easton Curtis, Nolan Kelly and Miguel Torres have played a lot of quality minutes, boding well for North Medford’s future.
Despite many great individual performances, North suffered through untimely turnovers, lacked consistency and, at times, those elusive intangibles; chemistry, energy, intensity and the x-factor that leads to victories at the end of games. That seemed to change when North Medford hosted a physical Lakeridge team out of the always tough, Three Rivers Conference on January 6th. It was Orozco’s first game back and there was a different buzz in the gym that night. With a good crowd on hand and a full and raucous student section, some holding “Welcome Back, Tony” signs, Orozco received a loud roar when the starting lineups were introduced. As the game got underway, it was apparent Orozco had some rust and nerves to shake off, but the energy and effort he brought was undeniable. It was energy that seemed to infect the other North players as, well. Coach Plankenhorn says the entire time Tony was out of the lineup he had a great attitude, practiced hard and was a great teammate. The coach said “You could tell how much Orozco cared for his teammates, he got emotional watching his team struggle without him.” Once Tony hit the floor, all that seemed to wash away and North began playing like the team they had the potential to be. The game was fairly tight and North found itself in the familiar position of having a good shot at the win late in the fourth quarter. This time, however it was different. North had been the team to find a way to lose these tight contests in several previous games this season. Either with late turnovers, missed free throws or a lapses on defense, the Tornado just couldn’t seem to finish a game. This night it was Lakeridge with the miscues and North Medford hitting the big shots, none bigger than a Houston Klug three pointer near the top of the key with under a minute to play putting the Tornado up 40-38. North capped off the win with some great defense and clutch free throws by Andrew Plankenhorn and Ty Carpenter. Orozco’s stat line only told part of the story of his contribution in this big win. With six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals, the numbers weren’t eye-popping, but it indicates his effort and involvement in every aspect of the game. Tony’s contribution was summed up by Coach Plankenhorn “He gave us a lift on both ends of the floor, for sure,” “…the energy level and the playmaking level just helped us with everything. He gave us a lot of stuff.”
Orozco had even better “stuff” in store for Tornado fans over the next two games. With Tony back in form and the team riding high with the confidence off of the Lakeridge win, the Tornado welcomed Grants Pass to town. After a somewhat shaky start, North found themselves down by 15 points at halftime. Orozco kept the Tornado in the game, scoring 11 of North’s 23 points in the first half. In the second half, North displayed every bit of their newfound poise and confidence by patiently chipping away at the Caveman lead, but still trailed by ten entering the fourth quarter. A frantic rally gave the Tornado their first lead midway through the fourth. The teams traded buckets for the next four minutes and ended regulation tied at 55. The game nearly ended in the final seconds of regulation as Orozco stole the ball and heaved up a half-court shot that fell just short. After finally learning how to win a close game against Lakeridge, the Black Tornado nearly perfected the skill by knocking down all eight of their free throws in OT while the Cavemen struggled from the line, and North eked out the 65-62 victory. Orozco was 6-6 from the line in the extra frame while scoring the first eight of ten total North Medford points in overtime. On the night Tony had 28 points, nine rebounds and four steals, but his real impact on this game was felt in the “intangibles” summed up again by Coach Plankenhorn in his statement after the game, “the mental change in the kids once he actually stepped on the floor and we knew he was playing, a lot of stuff changed.”
The “extreme makeover” continued three days later in Eugene when the Tornado led wire-to-wire in confident 68-59 beating of the Axe in the always inhospitable “Purple Pit” South Eugene gym. Tony again led the Tornado charge with a strong double-double, 23 point, 13 rebound performance. North is now 4-9, but more importantly 2-0 in Southwest Conference play and tied with South Medford at the top of the standings. Not many people outside of Plankenhorn and his team would have bet that the Tornado would even be talking playoffs at this point in the season, but here we are. The Black Tornado travel to Roseburg tonight to face a much improved Indian squad and then they have the Sheldon Irish at home on Friday. This sets up the, suddenly much more intriguing and “circle your calendar, can’t miss” North-South game next Tuesday at North Medford. Granted, it has only been a three-game win streak and the Tornado boys have a long way to go, but what should have the rest of the conference very concerned is that North Medford is playing its best basketball of the season with their star player rested, healthy and hitting on all cylinders and you can’t ask for much more than that in mid-January.
Orozco shies away from praise about his individual accomplishments and performances, and will respond humbly with “thank you, just happy I’m back.” I can say with confidence that every Black Tornado fan and especially Coach Plankenhorn are too.
by Rick Dyer