It’s an experiment that has true benefit and merit, but also one with a big hill to climb before permanent implementation throughout...
It doesn't always happen this way at the large-school level, but Saturday's matchup in the Class 6A softball state championship is as fitting as one could hope with top-seeded North Medford and No. 2 overall seed South Salem.
With a combined record of 55-3, the Black Tornado (28-1) and Saxons (27-2) have definitely asserted themselves as this year's heavyweights in 6A softball. And, on Saturday, one team will be able to lay claim to state supremacy when they meet at 4 p.m. at the Oregon State University Softball Complex in Corvallis.
"You watch those (Oregon School Activities Association) power rankings and you wonder how it's all going to play out in the end and here we are, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams meeting in the final," said South Salem head coach Scott McCormick, whose team lost 7-3 to Century in last year's championship. "The OSAA must be pretty happy about that because it doesn't always work out that way."
Both teams enter the title game with deep résumés and the kind of eye-popping statistics only dominant seasons can bring forth.
North Medford leads all classifications with only 20 runs allowed this season (0.7 runs per game), while South Salem's potent lineup has amassed a whopping 295 runs scored (10.2 per game), which only trails 2A/1A squads Glendale (453) and North Douglas (337). For the record, the Black Tornado has scored 198 runs (6.8 per game) while the Saxons have allowed 42 runs (1.4 per game) heading into Saturday's finale.
"We do score runs and the thing that's been really strong for us is one through nine, we've had kids that put the ball in play and been consistent hitters all season long," said McCormick. "The key for us is we string a bunch of hits together in one inning and maybe get an error and a walk and score three or four runs. That's kinda been our success story this year."
That's also where the concern grows for McCormick, whose team has already been shutout this season by North Medford junior Maryssa Becker in one of the Saxons' two losses. Becker struck out 11 in a two-hitter with no walks as the Black Tornado won 5-0 in a March 26 game played as part of the North Medford Invitational.
"Facing Becker, one question is whether we can string hits together against her," admitted McCormick, who began coaching in 1981 at McNary and moved to South Salem in 1996. "We maybe can get one or two but we're really going to have to work hard to manufacture a run after that and maybe get creative to do that. She can control all that from the mound real well."
Becker takes a 25-0 record and 0.45 ERA into the championship, striking out 298 and walking only 39 in 171 innings pitched. Her ability to gain strength as the game wears on has been a huge benefit for the Black Tornado, which has had to go nine innings in two playoff wins and 11 in another to reach the title game.
"She can overpower you and talking with people that have been playing North over the last several weeks, she's been using her changeup more and been effective moving the ball in and out," said McCormick. "It's hard for us to simulate that."
South Salem has leaned on its own emerging star inside the circle in sophomore Katie Donovan, who was the relief pitcher in last year's 6A final but was not the pitcher of record when the Saxons lost earlier to North Medford. Since taking over as her team's ace, Donovan has posted a 21-1 record and 0.72 ERA. In 146 innings, the power pitcher has 183 strikeouts against only 26 walks.
"We're kinda hoping that the ace card in our back pocket is that they haven't really seen Katie yet," said McCormick. "We're hoping they're not going to remember what she's like and hopefully that will be a little bit of an advantage we'll use, but you never know."
One thing both coaches definitely agreed upon was that the earlier meeting between the teams really has no bearing on what Saturday's outcome may be.
"They were growing and so were we," said seventh-year North Medford head coach Mike Mayben, "so I fully expect we're going to be different teams the second time around."
Becker leads North Medford in most hitting categories, batting .480 with 15 doubles, seven home runs and 46 RBIs, while sophomore shortstop Joci Ellis is hitting .451 with a team-high 38 runs, five triples and 22 stolen bases. Senior second baseman Hannah Leming is hitting .422 with 24 runs and 26 RBIs, while freshman right fielder Grace Jovanovic (.444, 20 runs), junior catcher Katie Williamson (.388, 13 RBIs) and senior first baseman Kelsie Bartley (.330, 19 RBIs) have played vital roles.
Leming was a starter on North's 2009 state championship team, while senior center fielder Sierra Berryessa (.286, 16 runs) scored the go-ahead run in a 4-3, nine-inning win over Sunset as a courtesy runner. The Black Tornado is 4-1-1 in championship games and, like Saturday, was the visiting team when it last took home the first-place trophy.
Junior first baseman Raina Reece has been South Salem's big hitter with a team-best eight homers and 43 RBIs to go with a .444 average. Sophomore leadoff hitter Kelly Burdick is a slap-hitting lefty like Ellis and is hitting .510.
"If she's getting on base it really makes us kinda go," McCormick said of Burdick. "We get kinda rolling and follow her lead pretty well."
Senior catcher Lauran Bliss has been like a coach on the field for McCormick and has signed to play at Texas Tech. Bliss is hitting .450 but is just as instrumental in reining in Donovan when the need arises. Senior center fielder Kaley Stauff is one of four Saxons in their fourth season on varsity and has upped her effectiveness since moving one spot up from the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Stauff is hitting .374 and is second on the team with 40 RBIs.
South Salem got a boost with the return of junior shortstop Kelsie Gardner for the semifinals Tuesday against Crater. Gardner had been out with a hip flexor injury but is a key defensive figure and also steady hitter who has moved from the No. 2 spot to batting fifth after Stauff excelled in her spot.
Both coaches said the awe of being in a Division I stadium can be a big factor to overcome but each relish the opportunity to play for it all and expect a good showing all around.
"I just hope our kids come out ready to play, loose and relaxed and just enjoy the day," said Mayben. "We've put so much pressure on ourselves the last three games that hopefully we're finally able to relax and take it all in because it is a special moment for us all."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry