Southern Oregon has been home to many prominent wrestling duals over the years, mostly thanks to the history of programs like Crater, Eagle Point...
If it was going to be a first, the baseball teams at North Medford and South Medford certainly made sure Wednesday's state playoff matchup was going to be memorable one.
Meeting for the first time in the playoffs in school history, the Black Tornado and Panthers took the drama up a notch in their cross-town rivalry and didn't disappoint as the Class 6A second round affair went to the wire at North Medford High.
Whether it was a rare home run, a stirring three-run rally or knocked down pitcher rising to finish the job, Wednesday's fourth meeting of the season between North and South had a little something for all to marvel at as the Black Tornado held on for a 6-4 victory.
"Rivalries, in general, are always going to be good games, whether it's an underdog team going against an elite team or just two good teams," said North Medford senior Micah Brown, whose team swept the regular season series 3-0 against the Panthers. "We had to look at this as just another game and that's what we did, and we really persevered through adversity."
Brown had his hand in several key moments for North in the nail-biter, but none were bigger than his heads up effort in the bottom of the seventh that sealed the victory.
One out walks drawn by South Medford's Jimmy Sporer and Ryan Carle put the tying runs on board before starting pitcher Colton Westfall induced Brady Breeze into hitting a grounder to second baseman Tate Cowden. A quick pitch to the shortstop Brown led to one out at second but the senior double-clutched in his thought to go for a traditional double play against the speedy Breeze. In the next blink, however, Brown had his attentions turned toward third base and fired a strike to a waiting Josh Berman for the game-ending out after Sporer was caught too far off the base.
"I realized I wasn't going to get (Breeze) at first and rather than throw it away I went to check the runner and he just rounded it and we capitalized on his mistake," said Brown, who was 2-for-3 with two runs scored.
While Brown may have stayed cool under pressure, the effort brought a tremendous roar from the North Medford faithful and a gasp of silence on the opposite side for a Panther team that had poured it all out on the field.
"I couldn't ask for any more," said South Medford head coach Ray Smith, whose team finished 16-11 and was seeking its first quarterfinals appearance since taking second in 2010. "These kids give me everything they've got every day. As a coach, you can't ask for anything more. They're good kids, great teammates and they just work their butt off day in and day out. It's been a privilege to work with them ... and that was a tough one today."
"We had many opportunities to gain some momentum, and we did at times," added Smith, "it's just North's a good club and they made an extra play or two when they needed it. But hat's off to my kids and all those seniors that worked so hard to try to make it happen."
North Medford (24-4) advances to play host to Lake Oswego at 4:30 p.m. Friday in its first quarterfinals appearance since 2008. The Lakers (19-10) beat McNary 4-2 on Wednesday.
"Our kids showed a lot of resilience," said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe. "We talk about that day in and day out and they sometimes look at me like, 'Oh, no, not again,' but I just keep hammering it home for situations like that when you just need to keep playing the game."
"You talk about little things and that last play of the ballgame proved it," he added. "If you're going to win a one-run or two-run ballgame, you have to do the little things and Micah looking backdoor and Berman being on the bag are the little things that you've gotta do. That got us out of the inning to win that ballgame."
South Medford had scored only one run in 14 innings this season against Westfall but equaled that to take a 1-0 lead in the second inning when a leadoff walk to Nate Walker was followed by a laced double to the fence by Austin White and a sacrifice fly by Eric Wallan.
North Medford answered in its half of the second in unlikely fashion when a two-out walk drawn by Jordan Pond against South starter Brandon Lupton was followed by a crushed home run over the left-center field fence by Troy Fowler. It was the first home run in Fowler's Tornado career, and the first hit at North Medford High this spring.
The Tornado built a 4-1 lead in the third when Jared Evans laced a two-run single just over the outstretched glove of the third baseman Wallan to plate Brown and pinch-runner Ryan Sutton, who replaced David Crofton after a single.
Undaunted, South Medford clawed back with three runs in the fifth to tie the game at 4-all. Cole Carder's 0-2 liner off the right triceps of Westfall sent the pitcher to the ground writhing in pain in an anxious moment, but the right-hander returned to the mound after a short delay.
"Both trainers checked him structurally and he was good to go, and he wanted the ball and was throwing well," said Wolfe. "When you've got a competitor like that on the mound I'm going to leave him there. We were going to either win or lose with him and feel good about it either way, but winning's a lot more fun."
After a quick out, Carle drew a walk and didn't waste time on base as Breeze followed with a one-hopper to the left-center fence for a two-run double. After an intentional walk to Walker and a passed ball moved both runners up, White followed with a chopper that was swatted down on a diving effort by Berman but his throw from his knees just eluded a sweeping dig attempt at first by Crofton. Breeze scored easily on the play but pinch-runner Dillon Alfinito was caught trying to score when Crofton tracked down the loose ball and darted a throw home to catcher Austin Zavala for an inning-ending tagout.
"After that we came in the dugout and emphasized to just flush it and look forward," said Brown, "and that's what we were able to do to answer right back."
Brown's one-out single started a rally that included two-out singles by Evans, Berman and Pond to help North gain a 6-4 advantage that Westfall held onto with a quick sixth-inning effort and a little defensive help in the seventh.
"South Medford's a very good club," said Wolfe. "They have athletes all over the place and they pound the baseball so we knew we were going to have to compete. I like our heart and character and soul, and we brought it today."
South Medford 010 030 0 — 4 6 3
North Medford 022 020 x — 6 9 0
Lupton and White; Westfall and Zavala. W — Westfall (11-2). L — Lupton (4-3). 2B — SM: White, Sporer, Walker, Breeze. HR — NM: Fowler (1).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry