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 second-ranked North Medford boys soccer team got bounced out of last year's state playoffs in the opening round.
The Black Tornado didn't let that happen again this season.
North Medford proved to be the epitome of efficiency in Friday's Class 6A first-round game against South Salem.
Benny Torres-Mata scored with less than three minutes gone in the contest and the Black Tornado led 3-0 midway through the half en route to a 6-0 victory at Hoffbuhr Field.
North Medford (12-1-2) will take an eight-game winning streak into Tuesday's second round. The Southern Oregon Hybrid champion will host the winner of today's Century-Reynolds playoff match.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth," said North Medford second-year coach Michael Belzberg of the 3-1 loss to Beaverton in the 2012 playoffs. "We've been holding on to that for a year. There's no more holding back. It's all or nothing."
North's first goal came shockingly fast when Torres-Mata made a dazzling move between two defenders on the left side, dribbled inside the box and hit a low diagonal shot from six yards out through the legs of Saxons' goalkeeper Yusuke Nagaoka at the 38:33 mark.
About two minutes later North went up 2-0 on a set piece off a corner kick. Garrett Byrd, the SOH player of the year, dropped a short kick to Austin Schoenmann, who deftly dribbled near the end line and found an open Manuel Mejia for a tap-in close to the net.
"It was one of our plays we practice every time," said Mejia, who missed on that same piece in North's regular-season finale against South Medford last Saturday. "Our goal today was plain and simple — just one or two touches."
Then the senior Byrd scored the first of two goals when he outraced the Saxon defense on an upfield pass from Louis Michelon and beat Nagaoka on a rolling shot in the 21st minute. Byrd's goal in the 55th minute off an assist from Torres-Mata gave the Black Tornado a 5-0 lead.
In the first half, North Medford took four shots and scored on three.
For Byrd, Friday's first-round victory was redemption from last year when he was injured and was not available in the playoff loss.
"I almost had a chip on my shoulder from last year," said Byrd — now with 12 goals and 14 assists on the season. "We focused on coming out fast and swinging the momentum in our favor. We were trying to keep the ball on the ground and create some good chances. And when we did, we finished."
Belzberg says Byrd has a rare combination for a soccer player.
"He's a big, strong kid with tremendous touch," said Belzberg. "It's kind of a paradox. It makes him so unique."
South Salem (8-6-2), the No. 3 team from the Central Valley Conference, came out with energy and dominated possession early in the second half. But the Black Tornado deflated the Saxons on Mejia's goal 11 minutes into the second half.
Carter Ehlers created the opportunity when he raced up the left wing with the ball deep in the Saxons' zone. Ehlers served a cross to Marco Cortez in the box and the senior forward took a hard shot that ricocheted off Nagaoka. Mejia got the rebound and deposited the ball into the net.
Back-up Ryan Hogan collected North's final goal near the mid-point of the second half. Danny Zamora did a good job of hustling and winning the ball in corner, then finding an open Hogan.
"They jumped on us and took advantage of their early chances," said South Salem coach Eric Johansen, in his 33rd year guiding the Saxons. "They're big, strong and physical. They seem to have good tactical plays as their set pieces."
Belzberg points to an earlier 2-1 loss to Grants Pass this season as a turning point for his senior-laden team.
"We were humbled and realized we could get beat on any day," said Belzberg, who has 13 seniors on the squad. "From there, we just tried to stay positive and concentrate on playing good soccer and not worrying about results."
With a 3-0 halftime lead, the North Medford coach wanted to avoid a second-half let up.
"We didn't want to take our foot off the gas," said Belzberg. "My message at halftime was we need to wipe the smiles off our face because we want to be smiling at the end."
And the North Medford team was all smiles when the final horn went off.
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480, or email email@example.com