Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Josh Berman had a premonition it might be his time to make a big play.
With North Medford nursing a 5-3 lead and the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a Class 6A first-round state baseball playoff game against Oregon City, Berman had to lunge to his left for a potential game-tying grounder heading toward left field.
The Black Tornado junior third baseman gloved the ball off the bat of pinch hitter Chris Hood and from his knees fired to second baseman Tate Cowden for the final out, preserving a 5-3 victory Monday at North Medford High.
"I knew the ball was going to come to me so I was prepared," said Berman about his game-ending play. "It was scary. As soon as I layed out and got it, I knew I was going to get him at second."
Just two batters before, Berman made another defensive gem with the bases loaded. This time he cut in front of shortstop Micah Brown on a slow, high chopper and tossed to Cowden for a force on a very close call for the second out of the inning. The Pioneers scored on the play to cut North's lead to 5-3.
"I just reacted," said Berman about his first important fielding play of the inning. "I didn't want to have a miscue by not taking it. I tried to do my best and fortunately made the play."
Berman also contributed an RBI single when North Medford scored all five of its runs in the second inning.
The Black Tornado, No. 2 in the OSAA power rankings, advances to the Round of 16 for the second straight year. North (23-4) will host South Medford on Wednesday.
"It came down to the wire but the pressure is fun," said North Medford coach Brett Wolfe. "Oregon City is better than advertised. They can hit and play defense."
The Pioneers (9-19) are just two years removed from winning the state championship in 2012. Oregon City finished last in the Three Rivers League this season but coach Greg Lord, in his 45th year at the school, got his team back in the 32-team bracket with a 10-5 play-in victory over Grant
North Medford used a solid pitching performance from Jordan Ragan and bunched five of its seven hits together for the one big inning to carve out the victory.
Ragan (4-1) was pulled for staff ace Colton Westfall when Mathew Weseman singled to lead off the seventh. Ragan, a junior left-hander, surrendered five hits, struck out six and walked four. He allowed one earned run.
"Jordan had been there all year for us," said Wolfe. "He has a live arm. He's a big-game pitcher."
Wolfe said he was comfortable starting Ragan in the playoff game instead of Westfall.
"We are trying to do something a little different this year," said Wolfe, whose team exited the playoffs in the second round in 2013 and the first round the year before. "To me, it was not a big gamble. Ragan is a No. 1 on a lot of teams. I like his composure. Whatever the situation, he stays within himself and competes."
Ragan got out of trouble in the first with a double play when the Pioneers had two runners on with one out. North also turned two more double plays behind Ragan.
"I was nervous at the start," said Ragan, "since it's the playoffs, if you lose you are out.
"My curveball wasn't on until the third inning," explained the pitcher. "I got through the first couple of innings on my fastball. Once we got the runs, I settled down and got my confidence."
After going down in order in the first, the Black Tornado sent 10 batters to the plate in the decisive second frame.
David Crofton opened the inning with a base hit, then Jared Evans lofted a long, high fly over the head of centerfielder Terrel Hood for a triple. Berman's line drive up the middle scored Evans and Jordan Pond walked.
After Troy Fowler sacrificed pinch runner Preston Johnson to third and Pond to second, pinch-hitter Isaiah Luzny smacked a 2-2 pitch down the right-field line for a two-run double. Christian Gillis singled and with runners on first and third, Austin Zavala squeezed home Luzny with the final run.
Luzny said he was prepared for a curveball after two fastballs from Pioneer starter Clay Valenzuela-Reece.
"I saw the rotation when it came out of his hand," said Luzny. "I wanted to go to the right side with runners on second and third. It's a little hard coming in cold. You just have to stay focused."
Wolfe sensed this was a good spot to use Luzny as a pinch hitter, even if it was so early in the game. And the hunch paid off.
"Isaiah is a great contact hitter," said Wolfe. "He's been coming off the bench and producing for us."
Wolfe was prepared to go to Westfall earlier but Ragan sailed through the sixth with a strikeout and a enticed Wiley Braun to hit into a routine double play.
After Ragan allowed a single to open the seventh, Wolfe summoned Westfall to the mound from second base. The junior lefty struck out his first batter but gave up back-to-back singles to leadoff hitter Valenzuela-Reece and Jalan Satter and also walked Austin Johnson.
With Westfall struggling in relief, it was Berman who made the two clutch defensive plays with the bases loaded to keep the North Medford season alive.
Oregon City 000 010 2 — 3 7 2
North Medford 050 000 x — 5 7 1
Valenzuela-Reece, Johnson (4) and Sprague; Ragan, Westfall (7) and Zavala. W — Ragan (4-1). L — Valenzuela-Reece (2-2). 2B — OC: Johnson: NM: Luzny. 3B — NM: Evans.
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480, or email at email@example.com