Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Taylor Raff has heard it all before.
When you stand 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds and play just about any sport these days you're going to be overlooked at some point.
But all that is merely fuel to the fire for the North Medford senior shortstop, who may not get your full attention at first but won't need much time thereafter to make you a believer.
"He's not really tall in stature but he plays big in heart," says North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe.
On a deep Black Tornado baseball team that aims to secure its first conference title in four years this afternoon, few have come up bigger than Raff. From his role as one of only three seniors on the roster to anchoring the offensive and defensive output by North Medford, Raff stands tall with his consistent performance.
"He's kind of our spark plug guy and the one that gets us going," adds Wolfe. "He's a kid that put a lot of work in during the summer and is able to do a lot of things. He's just one of those solid guys you need who goes to work every day and is one of those lunch pail kids that you need in order to succeed."
Heading into this week's three-game series against Grants Pass, Raff held the team lead in batting average (.382), on-base percentage (.479) and runs scored (25) for the Black Tornado. His good eye in the batter's box has also led to 14 walks, including one Tuesday that opened the game and eventually resulted in Raff scoring the only run in a 1-0 win over GP.
"When people kinda overlook me, that drives me to be a better player," says Raff, who was a second-team all-conference pick last year. "Most people look at me and say he's small and probably isn't able to perform as well as some of the bigger guys out there and that makes me work harder in the offseason and work to perform at the best of my ability."
Of particular surprise is the power behind Raff's highly crafted swing, which he gives full credit to North Medford's coaches for establishing. He's cranked out two home runs, three triples and five doubles among his hits this season and is as capable as anyone of driving it through the gaps.
"I love it when I come up and guys will come in on me in the outfield," he says. "There's no better feeling than just driving the ball past them."
There may be something better, he admits, but Raff just hasn't had the pleasure of experiencing it yet. That would be a conference championship and deep run in the Class 6A state playoffs.
North Medford holds a one-game lead on Crater for the Southern Oregon Hybrid title at 19-5 overall and 8-2 in SOH play and can clinch the crown with a sweep of today's home doubleheader against the Cavemen (13-11, 3-7). Depending on how the Comets (16-8, 7-3) fare in their home twin bill against Roseburg (14-7, 4-6), one win might be enough to finish in sole possession of first place but Raff says his team isn't focused on anything other than putting their best foot forward today and seeing where that takes them.
"It's been a great year and I wouldn't have wanted it to come down any other way than for us to be competing for the conference championship," says the 17-year-old standout. "We're going to come out and just compete in the final conference games I'll ever be in and go from there."
Given where Raff has come from during his run as a three-year starter for North, he takes a little special pride in the fact that his team has a chance to finish back on top.
The Black Tornado earned three straight conference titles prior to him moving to Medford from Damascus during the summer of his freshman-to-be school year. He wasn't part of the varsity program in that freshman year when North Medford was edged by Roseburg for the title and finished 23-4 overall, but was very much at the forefront of the ensuing years when the team took its share of lumps during a rebuilding process that's seen two third-place showings and more baby faces than a nursery ward.
"It would mean the world to me," Raff says of capping his career as a conference champion. "Coming off two years where we had a lot of talent but couldn't put things together to having this year where we're finally putting the pieces together, it would be a shame to have all the talent we have on this team and not win it."
In reality, it's making it through those hard times with a young cast around him that Raff says has led the Tornado to where it's at today. The roster is filled with sophomores and juniors who have sweated out a couple seasons that haven't gone beyond the first round of the playoffs, and that camaraderie appears to be making more of a difference than any leadership he can provide.
"Being an older player you have to show leadership and set an example for the younger guys," says Raff, "but I feel like as a team we all can supply that. Chemistry-wise we can all show leadership because we've all been together for so long, and I think that's a great strength for us."
As for himself, Raff says being small in stature may actually wind up being one of his strengths on the baseball field, particularly in the batter's box.
"My strike zone's so small, they almost have to throw it down the middle," he says with a laugh. "Those other guys have to worry about twice as much as I do, I just have a little tiny zone to worry about."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry