It’s an experiment that has true benefit and merit, but also one with a big hill to climb before permanent implementation throughout...
How Saturday plays out is anybody's guess.
This much Alexis Barkwell is certain of: She and her North Medford softball teammates will bus over to Corvallis, where they'll play South Salem in the Class 6A state championship. If all goes smoothly, she and five other seniors will make it back in time for their 4:30 p.m. graduation.
Perhaps they'll practice their walk to the stage up and down the cramped bus aisle, like Black Tornado seniors did in 2009. Maybe they'll accept their diplomas in their uniforms, memories of the game fresh in their minds.
After Barkwell and the top-seeded Black Tornado beat No. 5 Westview, 2-0, in the semifinals on Tuesday to make real the possibilities, the winning pitcher could only imagine a happy ending to her high school career.
"I think it will be a really special day," she said.
Barkwell certainly got the week started off right. She belted a two-run home run in the fourth inning, pitched a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and one walk and executed the game-ending double play.
She and her teammates will attempt to capture the program's third straight state championship at the Oregon State University Softball Complex Saturday against the Saxons (28-1), who beat South Medford, 6-0, in their semifinal. South Salem has dealt North (28-2) its only two losses this season.
No softball team in the state has won three straight crowns since Crater (5A) and Valley Catholic (3A) in 2009.
"It's a great feeling," said Black Tornado senior shortstop Joci Ellis, who will have played in all three title contests along with Keisha Williams and Maddie Gates. "You work so hard to make it there and no matter what the outcome is, it's just so exciting to get there."
The Dixie State-bound Barkwell transferred to North Medford from California and played behind Louisville's Maryssa Becker last season. She started at first base in the 2013 championship.
Barkwell built a 25-2 record this spring as the squad's ace.
"I am so blessed to have this opportunity," Barkwell said. "I am just so proud of my team and all the obstacles we have overcome and the team we are today compared to who we were at the beginning of the season."
Barkwell's fourth homer of the year came on a 2-1 pitch with no outs after Grace Jovanovic got on first base with an error. The powerful hit soared left.
"I was watching to make sure it didn't curl before the foul pole," North Medford head coach Mike Mayben said. "The wind was blowing that way and it was curling pretty good. It stayed in and those were the two runs it took to win. We knew in this game it would come down to one or two runs for somebody."
Added Barkwell: "I was down in the count so I was looking to defend the plate any way I could. (Westview pitcher Abby Greer) just happened to mess up on a pitch and I took advantage of it."
It was only fitting that Barkwell sealed the victory in the top of the seventh inning after the Wildcats put runners on first and second with one out. Alexis Patino drilled a line drive directly at Barkwell, who caught the comebacker and then threw to first base for the final out.
"If that ball is not caught or glances off her glove, it's at least a run," Mayben said.
"It was just a reaction," Barkwell added. "You catch a ball and you're always looking for the next play. I don't think she was expecting me to catch it, so it just kind of worked in our favor, I guess."
Ellis went 2-for-3 for the Black Tornado, which seeks its fourth state title in six seasons.
Westview (22-9), the Metro League champions, had won 14 straight entering Tuesday's contest. Sophomore Greer tossed a four-hitter with nine strikeouts and four walks.
"You know, they are disappointed," Westview head coach Ronda McKenzie said. "From a coach's standpoint who has a lot of returning players, it's kind of a good thing."
After the triumph, Barkwell entered the North dugout and taped a piece of paper to a board on the wall. The headline on the sheet read "Competitive Greatness," referring to John Wooden's Pyramid of Success.
It went at the top, signifying the final step toward something great.
"Coach Mike wanted us to earn it first," Barkwell said. "After the game, and after we had done everything we needed to do, we completed the pyramid."
Westview 000 000 0 — 0 4 1
North Medford 000 200 x — 2 4 1
Greer and Rose; Barkwell and Ramsay. W — Barkwell (25-2). L — Greer. HR — NM: Barkwell (4).
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt