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...
The last time North Medford and Glencoe went toe-to-toe on the softball diamond, back on March 25, something unexpected happened: the two teams — both led by Division I-bound pitchers — combined for 21 hits, seven for extra bases, in a game that was essentially won (4-3, Glencoe) with bats, not arms.
North Medford star pitcher Maryssa Becker remembers that letdown, believes she knows what went wrong, and is confident that when the two teams meet again in the Class 6A state championship game Saturday the world will return to the natural order of things.
"They're a very good hitting team and I have to be smart when I pitch to them," Becker said. "But I also know that that game was a totally different situation than what it's going to be like Saturday. And I think that maybe the energy will be different, too."
Becker and the Black Tornado (28-2) know all about big-game pressure and how to handle it. The Louisville-bound pitcher dominated South Salem — 15 strikeouts, zero walks — in last year's final to lead North Medford to its sixth state championship and second in four years. With Becker back for her senior season North figured to be a contender again this year and has lived up to expectations by winning the Southern Oregon Hybrid then stampeding through four playoff games by a combined score of 29-0.
Now comes Glencoe, the Pacific Conference champions out of Hillsboro who are led by California-bound ace Katie Sutherland-Finch. Though North finished No. 1 in the OSAA power rankings, few would consider the defending champs the favorites against the No. 2 Crimson Tide. Glencoe (28-1) enters Saturday's game riding a 25-game winning streak, led wire-to-wire in the only head-to-head meeting between the two teams and recently moved up nine spots to No. 11 in the Xcellent 25 National Softball Rankings.
North Medford coach Mike Mayben stopped short of calling his team the underdogs, but he understands why others do and in fact seems to relish the idea that the Tornado has something to prove.
"Early in the season The Oregonian declared that Glencoe was the team to beat and our kids really want to step up to that challenge and say we belong in that conversation," he said. "We're here to fight and compete for a chance to do it again."
Glencoe coach Jacy Jukkala, who led the Crimson Tide to the 5A state title in 2010, isn't buying it.
"I look at it a different way for sure," she said. "I definitely don't see us as the favorites going in just because of all of North Medford's success. And my mighty mites, which is what we like to call them just because they're not very big, they'll just have to work hard and play their best game possible."
Both coaches expect to see a pitcher's duel Saturday, a showdown between two arms that appear to be at the top of their game. Considering the gaudy statistics, it's hard to argue. Becker, who stands 6-feet, is 18-1 with a 0.51 ERA and 219 strikeouts in 1242/3 innings pitched, including 25 scoreless innings and 40 Ks in four playoff tilts. Sutherland-Finch, who's 5-foot-3, has a 0.63 ERA with 363 strikeouts in 1661/3 innings pitched, including 57 strikeouts in four playoff games.
"Physics wise, I don't know how she does it," Jukkala said of Sutherland-Finch. "For as little as she is she's a strong thing."
Both Becker and Sutherland-Finch throw fastballs that touch the mid-60s, plus an assortment of other pitches — drop ball, rise ball, screw ball — to keep hitters off-balance. Neither looked particularly sharp in the early-season game, which featured two home runs by Becker and four doubles and a triple by Glencoe. But that was the second game of the day for both teams, and neither pitcher was in mid-season form.
Now, they are.
"You're getting two quality Division I pitchers going head to head," Mayben said, "so this is going to be a pitcher's battle that will really be about which team can make the least amount of mistakes and be disciplined at the plate."
That's why Mayben believes the key to North's chances may lie in the top of its order. Leadoff hitter Joci Ellis and No. 2 hitter Maddie Gates could give the Tornado a major lift by getting to Sutherland-Finch early. Ellis is batting .440 with six triples and two home runs; Gates .316 with 22 RBIs.
Along with her pitching prowess, Becker is also North's best hitter. Batting third in the lineup, Becker is batting .557 with eight home runs, nine doubles and 48 RBIs, leading the team by a wide margin in all four categories.
"Becker is a great athlete, a great pitcher," Jukkala said. "I think we'll try our best to keep her at a minimum, but it's inevitable that she's going to hit the ball."
The Black Tornado will be going for its second repeat state title after winning it all in 1997 and 1998. Five of the nine players who started for North in last year's state championship game will be back at the OSU Softball Complex on Saturday looking to add to North's softball legacy.
One of those players, catcher Katie Williamson, doesn't think the high-intensity environment will be a factor, at least not on North's end. Been there, done that, she says.
"You feel nerves and also excitement," she said. "You're so ready to play, ready to go, you don't even want to warm up. You just want to play.
"The key is just to play our game and not focus on the other team. If we're playing our game it's really hard to beat us. "» (Sutherland-Finch's) a good, quality pitcher, but you just have to get her rattled, you have to have long at-bats. All good pitchers are beatable."