Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
Preparation has always been a key for North Medford's baseball program under head coach Brett Wolfe, with the idea that the team that's most prepared to win usually does just that.
With the opportunity to secure something special this week, the Black Tornado heeded their coach's advice more than ever and proved his point.
Holding a one-game lead over Crater for the Southern Oregon Hybrid title, North Medford didn't leave any stone unturned as it secured a three-game sweep of Grants Pass this week with a pair of wins Saturday, 8-0 and 13-3 in five innings.
David Crofton pitched a four-hit shutout in the opener and Colton Westfall tossed a three-hitter in Game 2, with each pitcher striking out seven Cavemen while their teammates were busy belting out 24 hits in the twin bill.
"The biggest thing is they just decided to prepare better," said Wolfe. "We didn't always have the focus that you needed to in order to win. You have to prepare like a champion, and they did that themselves this week and went after it and we were fortunate to put the ball in play and have good pitching today."
The sweep allowed North Medford (21-5, 10-2 SOH) to claim its first conference title since 2009 and first outright crown since 2008. Crater's split with Roseburg on Saturday meant the Tornado finished with a two-game advantage over the runner-up Comets (17-9, 8-4).
"We wanted it real bad; we didn't want to share it with anyone," said North Medford junior Micah Brown of the title. "We worked hard in practice and that was our main goal. We really came together as a team these last three games (against GP). We didn't want to lose this chance that we have right now, and hopefully we can keep it going."
The Black Tornado will play a nonleague game against Sheldon on Wednesday to remain sharp, then open the Class 6A state playoffs at home May 20 as the No. 1-ranked team in the OSAA power rankings. Also automatically qualifying for the playoffs out of the SOH were Crater (No. 6 in power rankings) and third-place Roseburg (No. 2 in power rankings).
South Medford (15-10, 4-8) and Grants Pass (13-13, 3-9) will face play-in games at home on Tuesday as the Nos. 10 and 12 ranked teams, respectively, in the power rankings.
"It's pretty disappointing after we start the (SOH) season with a pretty good series (taking two of three) against Roseburg," said GP head coach Brian Diatte. "From there we just really couldn't put it together. It's disappointing but with the way baseball sets up in the state of Oregon with the OSAA (power rankings), it's a new season for us now and we'll see if we can get hot."
The Black Tornado didn't leave any room to breathe for the Cavemen to get hot on Saturday, scoring three first-inning runs in each game of the doubleheader and routinely quieting any threat with the dependable pitching of Crofton and Westfall.
Crofton drew the most pressure-packed start in Game 1, with a win needed to take the anxiety away from Game 2 and lock up at least a share of the SOH title. After giving up back-to-back singles to open the game, he responded in fine form and faced more than four batters in only one inning.
The junior right-hander only walked one batter in running his scoreless innings streak to 20. He entered the game with a 2.10 ERA overall but has especially been locked in during conference play with an 0.40 ERA in three prior games.
"I've just been able to command everything lately," said Crofton. "We've been putting a lot of work in every day at practice and it's just really paid off."
"It was a lot of pressure to get the job done, but we prepared right this week," he added. "This was the best week of practice we've had in a long time so we were really ready for today."
Brown's RBI double in the bottom of the first allowed some breathing room, then Crofton chipped in with his own RBI single before Josh Berman's RBI single capped a three-run frame that saw North bat through its lineup.
"It's nice to be able to settle down like that," said Crofton. "All the pressure leaves you when you get that early run support and then you can kinda fiddle with your own stuff."
Taylor Raff's two-run triple staked North to a 5-0 lead in the fourth, with two more runs scoring in that inning on GP throwing errors. Christian Gillis supplied the final outburst with a leadoff double in the sixth and later scored on a two-out single by Brown.
Brown continued to torch the Cavemen in Game 2 by finishing 2-for-3 with two runs and three RBIs. In the three games this week against GP, the junior second baseman went 6-for-10 with three runs and six RBIs — including the game-winner in a 1-0 win Tuesday.
"Before Tuesday, me and coach Wolfe really looked at my swing and tried to make adjustments," said Brown, who raised his batting average to .372. "I really made those adjustments and saw the ball well against them this week."
The Cavemen scored their first runs of the week against North in Game 2 with a three-run surge in the third inning off Westfall.
With the lead hovering at 5-3 and Crater having already won one game against Roseburg, the Tornado ratcheted its game up a notch and answered with four runs in the bottom of the third to regain control. A four-run fifth inning, capped by Berman's walk-off RBI single, put an end to the contest by virtue of the 10-run mercy rule.
"We don't stop fighting, we just try to keep going," said Crofton. "No matter what they score, it just motivates us more."
In the second game, Austin Zavala went 3-for-4 with two doubles, three runs and one RBI, Raff was 2-for-3 with three runs and one RBI and Crofton 2-for-4 with one run and two RBIs. Hayden Evans had a two-run double in the fifth to set the stage for Berman's second RBI of the game.
Justin Spinner went 2-for-3 in the opener for GP, while Chace VanEss and Hayden Chandler plated runs in Game 2.
"They're a great club, they've been doing it all year," said Diatte of the Tornado. "They're well-coached and you can't take anything away from them, they deserve everything they've achieved."
Grants Pass 000 000 0 — 0 4 3
North Medford 300 401 x — 8 10 1
Polder, D'Amico (5) and Leenknecht; Crofton and Zavala. W — Crofton (5-2). L — Polder (1-2). 2B — NM: Brown, Gillis. 3B — NM: Raff.
Grants Pass 003 00 — 3 3 2
North Medford 324 04 — 13 14 2
Ekwall, Fulton (3), Mathews (5) and Leenknecht; Westfall and Zavala. W — Westfall (10-1). L — Ekwall (0-1). 2B — NM: Zavala 2, Raff, H. Evans.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry