It happened rather unceremoniously, but there was a changing of the guard last Monday and Tuesday for one of the state’s biggest high...
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However the final story unfolds for the North Medford softball team this season, it will undoubtedly include the notion that the top-seeded Black Tornado apparently prefers doing things the hard way.
For the third straight game in the Class 6A state playoffs, North Medford fell behind on the scoreline and ultimately needed extra innings to secure a victory Tuesday against Clackamas, 5-4 in nine innings at North Medford High.
"The drama is definitely there each time out these days," said North Medford head coach Mike Mayben. "More than anything I'm just proud of the kids because they just hang in there. They don't drop their heads, they don't get discouraged and they don't get down. Clackamas, man, what a scrappy team they are and they competed hard. It was just a great game."
Marissa Gann smacked a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth, moved to third on a pair of one-out walks to Grace Jovanovic and Joci Ellis and broke the 4-all tie on a fielder's choice grounder by Hannah Leming to second base.
The hit to left field was Gann's first of the day and hit an even higher note with her peers than her pregame rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
"Marissa Gann's awesome," Leming said of the fellow senior. "We thought it was going to be an outside pitch but it was an inside pitch and she drove it and we were pretty much speechless because she hadn't really hit the ball like that all game. We knew right then that we could all go on and score some runs."
Nothing was settled, however, until Leming came up with the bases loaded and sent a hopper to second baseman Sarah Bigej, who had to come up throwing while ranging to her left and sent a low throw home to catcher Vanessa Oakden that couldn't be secured as Gann came sliding through the plate.
"Hannah's been a clutch kid all year long," said Mayben. "We knew that she would get the ball in play but Clackamas made great plays all day long so to see Hannah get the ball down and make it a hard play at home was phenomenal."
North Medford (28-1) now moves within one victory of a second state championship in four years and a fourth state title for a team from the Southern Oregon Hybrid in the past five years (Grants Pass won in 2008 and '10). Standing in the way will be a talented South Salem team that ousted fellow SOH squad Crater in Tuesday's other semifinal, 5-2 in Central Point. The Saxons (27-2) are the No. 2 seed overall and are champions of the Central Valley Conference.
"That's unreal and what I've been thinking about the whole season," Leming said of playing in her second state title game. "To go my freshman year and win it and then come back senior year and go again is just amazing. Hopefully, we're going to try our best to win again."
The state championship games for the Class 6A, 5A and 4A levels will be played at the Oregon State Softball Complex in Corvallis on Saturday, with game times still to be determined by the Oregon School Activities Association.
Black Tornado junior Maryssa Becker was again at the heart of her team's effort in the semifinals. The Louisville-bound standout struck out 17, allowed seven hits and walked two in a complete-game effort that improved her record to 25-0. She also went 3-for-3 with a game-tying double in the fifth inning and RBI single in the sixth.
Leming said much of her team's in-game composure comes from having Becker on their side.
"We just stick to it and stay calm in high-tempo situations and Becker's got it," said the second baseman. "She's never upset, she's never worried and we just stay right behind her and keep it going."
Becker's only blemish in the opening two innings was a one-out double by Sydney Wilson but she fanned the six other batters she faced. Clackamas (24-5) was finally able to break through in the third when McKenzie Giancola's hit landed safely on the right field line and Bigej drew a walk. After a groundout advanced both runners, Becker made her first mistake on an 0-2 pitch that was way too good for Oakden and laced into left field for a two-run single.
North answered with three runs in the fifth inning off Clackamas' Samantha Gutwig — all coming with two outs — when Leming singled home Grace Jovanovic and Becker followed with an RBI double to the fence and later scored on an RBI single by Katie Williamson. Williamson also threw out a pair of Clackamas runners trying to steal second base.
The Black Tornado tacked on an insurance run in the sixth after Gutwig walked the bases loaded to start the inning but did well to only allow an RBI single by Becker among the next four batters faced. Gutwig, who also went the distance, finished with three strikeouts against nine hits, nine walks and two hit batters.
North's 4-2 lead slipped away in the top of the seventh, however, when Melissa Noble secured a leadoff walk and scored on a two-out double to center field by Giancola. After a wild pitch put Giancola on third, Bigej followed with a grounder that got under the glove of the shortstop Ellis to allow the tying run to score.
The Tornado stranded a pair of runners in the seventh and eighth innings but used a sensational grab by Sierra Berryessa in center field to deny the Cavaliers in the top of the ninth. With Noble standing on third base with two outs, Giancola sent a deep shot to the gap in left-center that the senior tracked down and secured despite some late afternoon wind and sun to contend with in the outfield.
"Sierra in the outfield covers a lot of ground," said Mayben. "When the ball got hit, we felt fairly good as long as the wind didn't blow it a little deeper that she could get underneath that one. It was a high flyball and well hit but she gets to most things in the outfield."
That set up the momentum for Gann, who drove a 2-2 pitch over the head of left fielder Allie Anderegg to put her mark on an already noteworthy season for the Tornado.
"Marissa Gann just had a phenomenal at-bat," said Mayben. "She was 0-2 at the beginning and fights off a couple pitches and then finally just finds the middle of the ball and drives it. That was a phenomenal hit and something we needed. We needed a little spark and we needed to get on top of the ball."
And has been the case this season, whatever North Medford has needed it has gotten when it mattered most.
"Give credit to Mike and his kids, they're competitors and that's what it's all about," said Clackamas head coach Dave Just. "You've got the best four teams in the state left and they played like it, we played like it and it was never over until it was over. I couldn't be prouder of my kids — that's a great effort because we came out of nowhere — and good luck to those guys."
Clackamas 002 000 200 — 4 7 2
North Medford 000 031 001 — 5 9 3
Gutwig and Oakden; Becker and Williamson. W — Becker (25-0). L — Gutwig (22-5). 2B — C: Wilson, Giancola; NM: Becker, Gann.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry