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It may not have been for much more than a shot at silver, but the North Medford and South Medford volleyball teams played like solid gold was on the line in their Rogue Valley Classic quarterfinal match on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Black Tornado saved its most precious play for last.
North pulled off a heart-stopping 12-point rally in the second set to edge South Medford, 25-20, 30-28, at North Medford High.
The two squads were part of the 24-team invitational, which was hosted by the Black Tornado. Matches were also played at South Medford High.
Teams were slotted in three different brackets — championship, silver or consolation — after competing in pool play earlier in the day.
Out of the local teams, North won four sets and lost two in pool play, South Medford was 3-3, Roseburg 6-0, Grants Pass 4-2, Crater 4-2, Eagle Point 0-5, Ashland 3-3 and North Valley 1-5.
McNary went on to beat North, 23-25, 25-17, 15-10, in the silver bracket semifinals.
In the championship bracket, Crook County defeated Roseburg, 20-25, 25-22, 15-11.
McNary won the silver title after downing Grants Pass, 25-17, 25-22.
Mountain View edged Liberty, 25-19, 21-25, 15-11, in the consolation final.
North Medford never trailed in its first game against its cross-town rival, but was behind 20-8 and then 23-12 in the second set.
North sophomore outside hitter Emily Carter served 11 straight points — including an ace that put the Tornado ahead 24-23 — and senior middle blocker Elle Bixler, senior outside hitter Keisha Williams and freshman outside Ashley Ripplinger provided the firepower up front to help fuel the improbable rally, which left the Panthers searching for answers afterward.
"It was a little stressful," Williams said. "That was a phenomenal win. Emily came in clutch with some phenomenal serves and we definitely were struggling before that. But when we had to turn it on, we turned it on."
North would need all of those efforts and more to fight off the sizzling play of hard-hitting South Medford senior outside Claire Sporer, senior left back Grace Sporer and right side Jasmine Falls.
In between all that action, North junior setter Taylor Otoski had some carefully timed contributions. Her sneaky tip tied the second game at 23 before Carter's ace.
Ripplinger's ace gave the Black Tornado a 25-24 advantage before a North error and Falls kill put the Panthers on top, 26-25.
Williams responded with a kill and a double block by Otoski and Bixler pushed North in front, 27-26.
The two weren't done yet.
North turned the ball over to tie things up, but Bixler's ensuing kill made it 28-27 Black Tornado. Claire Sporer launched over a kill to tie the game at 28 before Bixler knocked in a kill to give North another match point. She then served over the final point, which South couldn't' return.
"That was great," Williams said of Bixler's strong finish. "Those are just the times when the seniors have to step up and play the best so everyone else on the team wants to follow."
Before her squad's rally, North head coach Erika Wright said she asked them to not dwell on the past.
"Basically we called a couple timeouts and I told them, 'Your only job right now is to play every individual point and keep battling,'" she said. "We have been trying to work on that mentality in practices and matches, and we absolutely did that. You could see their demeanor and response and, as it shifted momentum, you could see South wasn't all there and they were making mistakes. We have been in that situation before, too, and you know what that feels like as a coach."
Claire Sporer said she could sense the swing in momentum and tried to fight it.
"I am still really proud of our team," Sporer said. "We had really good energy throughout the whole thing, but sometimes it just gets a little hectic and there is some miscommunication and it kinda gets in your head. And we're kinda working on trying to get out of that.
"We got to the point where we were so far ahead that we thought the game was already over ... and little by little, point by point, it crept back up on us."
North also beat South Medford in a Southern Oregon Hybrid match earlier this season.
"We have a hard time finishing right now," South Medford head coach Sarah Costa said. "We do really well when we have a little bit of pressure on us, but I think they don't understand sometimes that it is pressure to finish, as well."
To set the stage for the elite final, Roseburg downed Bend, 25-17, 25-15, in the semifinals and Crook County beat Churchill, 18-25, 26-24, 16-14.
In the other silver semifinal match, Grants Pass beat Sunset, 25-22, 25-18.
West Albany, which won the 2012 title, did not participate this year.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org