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North Medford can become the first big school in 27 years of Oregon high school softball to win three consecutive state championships.
There's just one caveat: The Black Tornado must go through South Salem.
The two teams have met twice this season, and the Saxons won both, 3-0 on March 24 and 4-3 just a couple weeks ago — North Medford's only losses in a 28-2 campaign.
The Black Tornado scheduled those games because, said head coach Mike Mayben, "we wanted to get the best competition we could, and we knew South Salem is an elite team."
The teams will meet again for the Class 6A crown at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Oregon State University softball complex.
North Medford, which defeated Glencoe 2-1 for the title last year and South Salem the year before, 3-0, would be the first large school to claim three straight since Churchill won the 3A title in 1987.
The Black Tornado has captured three of the past five titles and six overall since becoming North Medford in 1986.
North Medford is the top seed in the playoffs despite the setbacks to the No. 2 Saxons (28-1).
South Salem's only loss was to West Salem, 3-1. North Medford defeated West Salem, 8-3, a day after losing to the Saxons the first time.
South Salem hangs its hopes on pitcher Katie Donovan. The senior, who is headed to Utah, has pitched two no-hitters in the playoffs — including one against South Medford in a 6-0 semifinal win Tuesday. That victory was Donovan's fourth playoff shutout in as many tries. She fanned seven and walked two.
Donovan pitched the first meeting against North Medford but was sidelined the second time around with an injury.
Julia Clark went the distance for the Saxons in the second meeting, allowing four hits.
That game was an eye-opener for South Salem, said head coach Scott McCormick in a story in the Statesman Journal.
His team is making its third trip to the championship game in four years.
"As the kids say redemption, what is it they say, redemption 2K14?" said McCormick. "It feels good. It feels like we should be there.
"The latter part of the season, over the last three and a half weeks, we've hit the ball well, we've become more of a team. I think the defining moment for us so far was when we defeated North Medford with Julia pitching and Katie sitting on the bench not pitching or hitting. All of a sudden the kids believed, hey, we can play with anybody. We're not just Katie. I think it was an epiphany for them."
Both meetings were competitive, said Mayben.
In the first game against Donovan, the score was tied 0-0 until South Salem scored three in the bottom of the sixth inning. The big hit was a two-out, two-run double by Clark.
North Medford had six hits off Donovan and had runners in scoring position in four of its seven at-bats.
"It was one of those great games to be a part of," said Mayben.
In the second contest against the Saxons, who have never won a state title, the game was tied 3-3 through 61/2 innings before South Salem won it in the bottom of the seventh on a squeeze bunt.
"The last game, we gave up a couple of runs that we normally wouldn't," said Mayben. "We made some mistakes we normally wouldn't. It was a good opportunity to learn, and the kids went back to practice and went to work and made some major adjustments in base running as well as at the plate to get ready for the playoffs."
Having collected a half-dozen hits against Donovan in March bodes well, he added.
"More than anything, we want to go to the plate with confidence," he said, "walk up there knowing you can compete and make as much contact as you can."
One or two runs "will probably determine" the outcome, said Mayben.
"As far as surprises, there shouldn't be any on either side," said the Black Tornado coach. "When you play head-to-head two times, you learn a lot and use as much info as you can and hope for the best."
North Medford counters in the circle with senior Alexis Barkwell.
She went the distance in the 4-3 loss to Saxons, allowing nine hits. In the first meeting, Barkwell started and gave way to Sarah Thomas in the sixth. South Salem had nine hits in that game also.
In the postseason, Barkwell, who is 25-2, has hurled two shutouts and allowed three runs in four games.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org