The Black Tornado of North Medford High


One hundred years ago, when the entity that would become the Oregon School Activities Association first formed, local high school athletic teams did not have mascots or go by formal nicknames.

Neither did many colleges or universities, though Yale University in 1909 appears to be the first, formally adopting “Bulldogs” 20 years after the original appearance on the sidelines of “Handsome Dan.” The year 1916 is commonly thought to be when Oregon State became the “Beavers.” The University of Oregon did not officially adopt “Ducks” until the 1920s.

Today, all of the state’s high schools have nicknames and/or mascots. Five nicknames, led by the “Eagles” with 18, are very popular and have been adopted by 10 or more schools. Seventy-six carry unique nicknames used by no other school in Oregon, like “Pacers” and “Heat,” “Cruisers” and “Crimson Tide.”

We asked Athletic Directors last week to share stories of how their schools got their nicknames. We received several interesting responses.

Back before Medford High School split into North and South, it had the Tiger as its official mascot, although some newspaper accounts referred to Medford High teams as the “Pear Pickers,” in honor of the Rogue Valley's top crop. That all changed in the 1920s when Oregonian sports editor L.H. Gregory wrote, possibly after watching Medford manhandle Benson Tech, 39-0, in the 1928 state championship game: "From out of the south, Medford swept over the field like a Black Tornado."

 Thanks in part to Bill Hulen, the Mail Tribune's sports editor from 1938-44, the Black Tornado moniker began to appear more and more.

"When I was in high school, we were the Black Tornado in football and the Tigers in basketball," said Bill Singler, 78, who graduated from Medford High in 1948.

In 1953, the school polled the student body on which mascot it should use. “Black Tornado” won in a landslide. When Medford High split into two high schools in 1986, North Medford inherited the Black Tornado mascot. South Medford became the Panthers.

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Sherwood High School’s history dates to the 1920s, when the town had no dedicated high school but rather a number of independent one-room-schoolhouse options for students. By 1936, thanks to WPA money during the Great Depression, Sherwood HS opened as home of the Bulldogs. According to the website, www.bowmenfootball.com, the shift to The Bowmen is tied to town history. In the 1940s, just after World War II, a group of men, mainly WWII veterans and Kiwanis Club members, formed a group known as Robin Hood and His Merry Men. The Merry Men were a social group that met for elk hunting and other activities and ‘high jinx,’ but the group also had a civic side. They often traveled to nearby towns to march in parades, promote Sherwood, attract business, and draw attention to the historic Old Town center. In 1953, the Merry Men started meeting as the Robin Hood Festival Committee. In 1954, they worked with the Sherwood Chamber of Commerce to form the Robin Hood Festival Association, and in July of that year, held the first official Robin Hood Festival.  Due to the Merry Men’s efforts to align Sherwood with the Robin Hood legend, the Sherwood High School administration and School Board decided to make the change as well. It was in the 1953-1954 school year that Sherwood High School became known as the “Home of the Bowmen.” 

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When C.S. Lewis Academy was founded in 1985, its nickname, predictably, was the “Lions.” The school was named after the famed author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, which prominently features the wise, compassionate Aslan, which is Turkish for “Lion.”

In 2001, the Newberg-area school merged with the Chehalem Valley Academy and adopted its nickname, the “Watchmen.” The newly-merged Christian school like “Watchmen” because the Old Testament term posited people who served Christ serving the dual purpose of being ever vigilant of the attack of the enemy while keeping a watchful eye for the return of the King.

In 2017, C.S. Lewis Academy effectively merged the two, retaining Watchmen as the school nickname while bringing back the Lion as school mascot. In the Narnia series, Aslan, both gentle and loving and powerful and dangerous, is Christ-like and symbolically plays the role of Watchman for all Christians.

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In 1930, Bend High School adopted the nickname “Lava Bear” for a mythical creature based on Native American lore said to inhabit the Central Oregon forests and roam the lava in the area. The Lava Bear was first “spotted” almost one decade before by the author and humorist, Irvin S. Cobb, according to legend. A few years later, Alfred Adams trapped the first “Lava Bear.” It turned out to be a black bear, but the legend of the Lava Bear has lived on ever since, especially at Bend High School.

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North Bend High School was founded in 1907 but for years its athletic teams were referred to as “the brown and gold.” The school’s unique colors were suggested by North Bend’s first superintendent, who had attended Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, whose colors were brown and gold. In 1928, the school’s Letterman Club suggested that the school take on a mascot, the “Bulldogs,” like colleges and universities were doing with increasing frequency. While the name “Bulldogs” isn’t unique, even among Oregon schools, where 9-10 use the name, North Bend may very well have been the first. One other interesting tidbit of note: North Bend has both a male and a female version of the Bulldog on its school seal. The male dog is known as Hesper and the female dog is known as Hessie. 

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Five years after Portland Christian was founded in 1947, the school adopted “Royals” as its nickname based on various bible verses but principally I Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race, a ROYAL priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." Portland Christian chose the colors purple and gold because that represented royalty and the image of the lion as it also represents royalty. Currently, PC’s lion mascot wears a crown to accentuate the image of royalty.

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Opened in 1884, Grants Pass HS did not get its nickname until 40 years later. In 1922 a group of men, some of whom belonged to the chamber of commerce, formed a group to advertise that Grants Pass was the place to turn off Hwy 99 onto 199 to go to the Oregon Caves. The group was from Grants Pass. They called themselves the “Oregon Cavemen.” They dressed in furs, as they imagined real cavemen did, and traveled to nearby cities advertising Grants Pass by walking in parades and initiating people into the Oregon Cavemen. Two years after the formation of the Oregon Cavemen,  students at Grants Pass High School adopted the name “Cavemen,” after the local Oregon Cavemen. The Oregon Cavemen are still an active booster group for Grants Pass and one of the members, who also works at GPHS, dresses in his furs for the home football games.

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Oregon Episcopal School began in 1869 as St. Helen's Hall, a boarding and day school for girls. In 1972, St. Helen's Hall merged with Bishop Dagwell Hall, an all-boys school, and was renamed the Oregon Episcopal School (OES). The school’s first mascot, officially, was the Falcons but the school also had an underground mascot, the Aardvarks. Aardvarks became the school’s official mascot in the late 1980s by a vote of the students. The nickname also has the added benefit of being first alphabetically of all nicknames in the state.

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There are plenty of schools nationwide with the nickname “Buffaloes,” but Madras is the only school to adopt the “White Buffalo” as its mascot. The White Buffalo is an extremely rare (one out of 10 million) animal considered to be sacred to Native Americans. It has been Madras’ mascot for at last 60 years.

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In 1974, the school districts of Weston and Athena combined to form one district in 1974. The two high schools, the Weston Tigers and the McEwen Scots, merged to form Weston McEwen High. Neither school wanted give up its identity, so a unique name was born, the “TigerScot!” The school actually has two mascots, a tiger and a Scotty dog.

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Powers High School is located in Powers, a small, isolated town on the northern edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. With logging a main source of employment, it should surprise no one that the school’s nickname is “Cruisers.” A “Timber Cruiser” is a person who estimates the value of timber in a tract of forest.

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There are several other schools whose unique stories we would have loved to hear. Perhaps no one knows why Putnam is the “Kingsmen” or Sunset the “Apollos” or Burns the “Hilanders” or South Wasco County the “Redsides,” though I’m pretty sure the latter is after a species of trout. Perhaps those stories are lost to history. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a sequel to this story coming one day. America does love a good sequel!

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Finally, no one seems to know how Lowell got its mascot, "Red Devils."

Said Athletic Director Pat Todd: “I have been around since 1975 and have never heard any stories of how it came about. We might not want to know... ha!”