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North Medford and Sheldon certainly won't be strangers when they meet Saturday with the Class 6A baseball state championship on the line, but that doesn't mean either carries much of an advantage into the finals at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.
The Black Tornado and defending champion Irish met in a tune-up for the state playoffs on May 20, with North Medford earning a 7-4 triumph in Eugene.
While that victory served as a good springboard into the playoffs for second-seeded North Medford (26-4), Saturday's 10 a.m. game is the only one that matters at this point for either squad.
"This game's a different game," said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe, whose team is in the finals for the first time since winning the 2007 state title. "It helps that they had a chance to get reps off our pitching but we got reps off theirs, too. They've played five games since that game and we've done the same so we've each seen a whole different set of pitchers and lineups and are geared different by now."
Things have definitely changed for the better for Sheldon (23-8), which has won its last five games with solid pitching and a never-say-die attitude. The Irish have come from behind to win three of its four playoff games, including an 8-3 win over top-seeded Crater in the quarterfinals.
"Obviously we know North Medford is a great team, we got to see them for ourselves," said Sheldon head coach Stan Manley. "But we've been playing pretty well and our pitchers have been keeping us in the game. Every game's different but we're fairly familiar with North Medford since we've seen each other quite a bit over the last couple years."
Sheldon played without starting freshman catcher Sam Olsson in the previous meeting, and opted not to throw No. 1 starter Brandon Brancato, who was the Special District 2 pitcher of the year. Conversely, North Medford ace Colton Westfall pitched all seven innings, striking out eight while allowing six hits, two walks and two earned runs.
Each team's top pitcher was on the mound in Tuesday's semifinals but neither eclipsed the 100-pitch mark, making it possible that Brancato and Westfall could get the start on three days rest.
"Brandon threw enough that he will be tired but he's got three days off and can do it," said Manley. "I wish it was the 5 o'clock game so he'd have a few more hours. He's a strong kid but I would not expect him to throw a complete game by any means."
Brancato, a senior, boasts an 11-2 record and 1.42 ERA, with 91 strikeouts and 42 walks in 83 innings in his first full varsity season. Manley said fellow right-hander Justin Herbert will likely also see action Saturday, with the sophomore going 3-0 with two saves and a 2.07 ERA. In 33 innings, Herbert has 24 strikeouts and 10 walks.
Westfall would be the likely call to start for North Medford given his history of being able to turn around on short rest. The junior right-hander is 12-2 with a 1.55 ERA and boasts 90 strikeouts and 39 walks in 77 innings.
That said, Wolfe has no qualms with going with either senior David Crofton (8-0, 1.53 ERA) or junior Jordan Ragan (4-1, 1.39 ERA) on Saturday.
"We know Westfall's quality if he's the guy Brett throws out there," said Manley, "but Crofton is (8-0) and they've got good arms to throw out no matter what he does. You don't have the records they have and play in the league that they do without being pretty good."
Given his options, Wolfe said his decision likely won't come for a few more days.
"We have three very good ones that we can go with and we're going to pay attention to how we want things set up," said Wolfe. "Of course we want to put our best defense on the field so that may have bearing on what we want to do, too, but we feel comfortable running any of those kids out there."
Leading the charge offensively all season for Sheldon has been senior first baseman Mitch Herbert, who was the Special District 2 player of the year. Herbert is joined by senior David Bellamy as the only returning starters from last year's championship team, with the three-sport standout hitting .418 with 29 runs and 23 RBIs. The 6-foot-5 standout, who has signed to play football at Montana State and led the Irish to a runner-up showing at the state basketball tourney, plated the go-ahead runs against Crater and came up big during Tuesday's 3-1 semifinal win over Hillsboro.
"He's kind of picked it up to a new level in the playoffs, which is really neat to see," said Manley.
Bellamy, the No. 3 hitter, is batting .340 with 25 runs and 24 RBIs, while leadoff hitter Kellen Strahm has set the table well with a .394 batting average, 32 runs and 21 RBIs.
Junior designated hitter Taylor Frost boasts considerable pop in his bat with a team-best eight home runs to go with 11 doubles, 32 RBIs and 23 runs scored with his .344 batting average. Olsson, who suffered a broken hand behind the plate when hit by a long swing, returned for the first game of the playoffs and is hitting .455 to add further depth to a lineup that includes Justus Adams (.353, 18 runs, 22 RBIs), Levi Rotherham (.346, 18 runs 15 RBIs) and Matt Land (.327, 21 runs, 16 RBIs).
"It's been pretty good throughout the lineup, it's not always one guy who does it for us," said Manley, whose Irish are hitting .343 as a team. "We've had kids step up throughout the lineup."
The same can definitely be said for North Medford, which is hitting .320 as a team and has scored the most runs (223) at the 6A level to complement a team ERA of 1.69.
"We have a rope that we hang onto and that's a symbol that no one has to do it alone, the other guys are there to pick them up," said Wolfe. "When you feel that you don't have to carry it all on yourself and guys are around to help you, it helps take the pressure off and allows guys to perform in key spots."
Senior shortstop Micah Brown is hitting .467 with 35 runs and 31 RBIs to lead North Medford, with senior designated hitter Jordan Pond not far behind with a .405 average, 12 runs and 10 RBIs after getting the call midway through the season.
Junior third baseman Josh Berman (.363, 11 runs, 19 RBIs), junior left fielder Troy Fowler (.354, 12 runs, 13 RBIs) and senior Isaiah Luzny (.339, 14 runs, 20 RBIs) each help turn over a lineup that has senior Christian Gillis (.310, 33 runs) in the leadoff spot and has been sparked with big hits from senior catcher Austin Zavala (.292, 29 runs, 14 RBIs) and junior right fielder Jared Evans (.301, 22 runs, 29 RBIs).
Crofton also supplies a dual threat as a senior first baseman hitting .287 with 20 runs and 19 RBIs, and senior outfielder Brett Pearson is hitting .305 with 12 runs and 11 RBIs in split duty.
"I think it will be a great game," Wolfe said of the championship final. "Our kids are prepared and they're excited to play a quality opponent. It will be a game of who blinks first. We always focus on three outs an inning and timely hitting and quality pitching, and I really believe that's what it's going to come down to, who handles that the best."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry