Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
The focus throughout the season for the North Medford High baseball and softball programs has been to improve with each passing day and try to finish as high up in the state's power rankings as possible.
Along the way, however, the Black Tornado made a little Oregon School Activities Association history this spring, and now it's hoping to make some more.
For the first time since the OSAA adopted the use of power rankings to determine playoff seeding in 2011, the No. 1 overall seed for Class 6A baseball and softball comes from the same school, and that's North Medford High.
Few could better put into perspective the unique feat than North Medford baseball coach Brett Wolfe, who is a staunch supporter of all the Black Tornado's sports programs. His son Hayden was the starting left fielder when the Black Tornado's baseball team won the state title in 2007, and his daughter Amanda was the starting catcher on the softball team's 2009 championship squad.
"I think it's awesome and I'm just excited for our school," Wolfe said of sweeping the top spots. "It's really exciting that both of us are at the top there, and I think it just helps put our school out there for the continued excellence that we have here. Hopefully both of us are fortunate enough that we can be there together at the end, too. My ultimate issue then would be which game I'd want to be there to watch."
For the North Medford baseball team, the No. 1 overall ranking is the highest its achieved entering the state playoffs, but the feat has become commonplace for Mike Mayben's softball program. Every year the power ranking has been in place, his Black Tornado has finished in the No. 1 spot.
For Mayben, the most exciting thing about the top ranking for each program is that it should help foster a community spirit on the North Medford campus. Barring upsets in the brackets, the No. 1 seed should receive a home game up until the state championship games on June 1, and that means potential twin features on the Tornado campus since the baseball and softball fields are only yards away from each other.
When the 6A state playoffs open on Monday, North Medford's softball team will host Sunset at 3:30 p.m., and the Black Tornado baseball team will host David Douglas at 4:30 p.m.
"I think it's really exciting that both teams are going to be playing back-to-back on the North Medford campus," said Mayben, whose team is the defending 6A champions. "We're a big community here and what a great opportunity you have to come and support kids on the softball side and then move over to the baseball side."
"To me that's the biggest thing," he added, "that environment and excitement, that's all going to be right there at one place and people will be able to share in each other's excitement."
In Monday's other baseball state playoff openers, Crater (17-9) plays host to West Linn at Anhorn Field, Oregon City is at Grants Pass (14-13) and South Eugene at Roseburg (15-8). In softball, Crater (9-16) plays at Barlow, South Medford (5-22) at Glencoe, Grants Pass (12-14) at Westview and Roseburg (19-6) hosts Centennial.
At least one No. 1 overall seed has secured a state championship at the 6A level in baseball or softball since power rankings have been used. In 2011, Westview's top-seeded baseball team prevailed and last year it was the North Medford softball team. No top seed has failed to at least reach the quarterfinal round.
Both coaches attribute much of that success not only to a team's talent, but also to the comforts afforded a No. 1 team.
"When you earn the opportunity to get as many home games during the playoffs as possible, it means a lot," said Mayben.
Added Wolfe: "Obviously you want to play at home because that's where you're comfortable and that's where you practice and kids get to sleep in their own beds and you can stick to your routine. You know what to expect so it's a huge advantage, probably more so than people think."
The drawback? Nothing draws more of a target than being the king of the mountain heading into the playoffs.
"We don't put any internal pressure on ourselves but externally, when teams come in to play you, they get pumped up and they have a little bit of extra adrenaline flowing," said Wolfe. "There's nothing really to lose so they can just go out there and play loose and free and gives them something to motivate them."
To offset that, Mayben said his teams over the years have kept their focus trained on what they're doing that day and not worry about outside influences like where teams are ranked or could be ranked.
"I think for our kids, they do a great job of just focusing on what we're doing," he said. "The power rankings really aren't a huge part of the conversation throughout the year. Obviously you're watching it but the focus is to get better and be prepared for the next game. It doesn't matter what your seed is or what you think you've got, you still have to go in prepared to play."
In both cases, the coaches are quick to point out the host of good teams also in the state playoffs that have just as much right to be optimistic as anyone else.
Whether it's top-four foes Glencoe, South Salem and Lincoln or even conference mates Roseburg and Grants Pass, the softball path to the title is far from clear. The same goes on the baseball side, where Roseburg, Sheldon, Clackamas and Thurston round out the top five and No. 6 Crater has already taken two of three in a series with the Tornado.
"Every team has a quality No. 1 (pitcher) through the first 20 teams in the state and every one can beat you if they're on," said Mayben.
It's that unpredictable nature of the game that keeps drawing Wolfe in as he wraps up his 19th season at the helm.
"In football strength shows up to take over and in basketball speed shows up," said Wolfe, "but in baseball, the opponent has the ball and he has to throw strikes and so do we. You have the same opportunities and that's why we get upsets."
Both teams actually enter the playoffs coming off a loss. Sheldon used a 15-run inning to upend North Medford 16-2 in baseball last Wednesday, while the softball team followed a thrilling 4-3 win in 10 innings over South Salem with a 2-1 loss at Grants Pass.
"That kinda awakened us to go back and revisit those little things and we were able to do that to be better prepared for Monday," said Wolfe. "As bad as that was for us to go through it, it actually prepared us for a good run that I think we're capable of making."
David Douglas (4-22), the baseball team's opening foe, has already pulled off one recent upset — 3-2 over South Medford last Tuesday — after coming into the play-in round ranked last among the 42 programs. North Medford (21-6) counters with a team pitching ERA of 1.74 and team batting average of .320.
Juniors Micah Brown (.388, 20 RBIs, 19 runs) and David Crofton (.333, 26 RBIs) and senior Taylor Raff (.384) have sparked the offense with sophomore Josh Berman (.324, 27 RBIs) and junior Austin Zavala (.320). Colton Westfall (10-1, 0.72 ERA), Crofton (5-2, 1.92 ERA) and Brown (2-2, 2.63) have powered the pitching rotation.
Sunset, ranked 38th at 4-21, pulled off its own upset in the play-in round — 3-2 over Sheldon — and has played in several close games to date. North Medford (24-2) features last year's Oregon Gatorade player of the year in Maryssa Becker, who is 14-1 with a 0.63 ERA and is hitting a team-best .576 with 46 RBIs and 28 runs. As a team, the Black Tornado is hitting .373 and boasts a 1.06 ERA.
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