Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
KEIZER — North Medford baseball coach Brett Wolfe never seemed happier, junior Colton Westfall got stronger with every pitch and timely, clutch hitting was on the Black Tornado's side here at Volcanoes Stadium on Saturday.
That recipe, with a secret ingredient or two mixed in, proved to be a winning one for North Medford as it held off Sheldon's bid to repeat as champions for a 3-2 triumph in the Class 6A state championship final.
The battle was so close that within two pitches in its final at-bat, Sheldon went from a potential one-run lead to a season-ending strikeout by Westfall, his seventh in a complete-game effort.
"It felt like we were holding an electric fence," Wolfe said of his reaction to winning a second state title. "It's a little shocking, and it will be for a while. It won't settle in with these kids until a week or so from now because they're really excited right now, and they deserve it. They worked their butts off and I'm ecstatic for them."
The only other state championship for North Medford (27-4) after Medford split into two high schools in 1986 came in 2007, coincidentally in the same uniforms the Black Tornado donned this season for what players vowed would be a promising one.
"It's not the uniforms that did it," Wolfe added after denying any superstitious tendencies. "These kids wanted it and they went out and played well and we were fortunate enough to get some timely hitting."
For all the early-game exploits, however, few moments were as tense as in the seventh inning when Westfall quickly got two outs before a bobbled grounder to shortstop Micah Brown gave Sheldon (23-9) some hope.
Designated hitter Taylor Frost then turned on a curveball for what would've been a no-doubt, two-run home run had it not been hit so well that it curled outside the foul pole. As he'd done all game, however, Westfall took a deep breath and returned to blow a fastball by Frost for a title-clinching out that set off a frenzy of dogpiling North Medford players in front of the mound.
"He was sitting on curveball all day so I was like, all right, fastball," Westfall said of his mindset. "Then I just tried to throw it as hard as I can. After that I was happy and I just wanted to go hug (catcher Austin) Zavala ... it was awesome."
The whole day was like that for Westfall, who threw 99 pitches in a complete-game shutout of Tualatin in the semifinals and was at 117 through six innings. Wolfe said he debated pulling his right-handed ace for fellow junior Jordan Ragan, but Westfall's solid mechanics, competitive spirit and control over his mechanics led him to stay with him to the end.
"My first inning was nerve-wracking," said Westfall. "My legs were shaking and all that and I had a rough inning. But I think I had a pretty good game after that, even though that last inning made me a little nervous with that almost home run right there."
Westfall finished with 127 pitches, earning five of his seven strikeouts in the final three innings. He allowed seven hits with four walks, throwing for strikes on 62 of his first 101 pitches despite a 31-pitch first inning.
"He had to be tired but he just is a gutty competitor," said Sheldon head coach Stan Manley of Westfall. "That was really impressive to see him battle through and make big pitches when he needed to."
Westfall didn't give the length of his outing on three days rest much thought.
"My legs are perfect and I felt really good," he said. "I didn't feel like I was throwing on three days rest, it felt more like five days of rest, so that was perfect."
Sheldon flirted with a big splash to start the game by loading the bases but Westfall buckled down to deny with his second strikeout of the inning.
North Medford answered with an offensive surge of its own, highlighted by Jared Evans' booming two-run double over the head of right fielder Levi Rotherham. Zavala previously drew a one-out walk and then pinch-runner Preston Johnson immediately raced to third on a first-pitch hit-and-run by Brown. After David Crofton walked to load the bases, Evans sent a towering drive into the right field corner.
"He threw me an outside fastball and it was kinda low and out of my zone but this ump's zone was there all day so I was like, 'I gotta go and try to hit that,'" said Evans, who finished 2-for-3 with one run and two RBIs. "I did and luckily it had a little tail on it so the right fielder couldn't make a good read on it. That's what opened the door for us and I think that's what really held us through until the end."
North Medford picked up a pivotal run for a 3-0 lead in the third inning, once again sparked by Evans, who was designated the Black Tornado's Oregon School Activities Association player of the game in the state championship.
Evans slapped a one-out single to right field and then stole second base to set the stage for his team's third run.
"This is a different environment than I've ever been in for a baseball game and I'm happy I was able to live up to the pressure and finally played to my potential," said Evans. "I definitely showed everything that I had on the field today and it just feels amazing."
With two outs, senior designated hitter Jordan Pond stepped into the box and delivered a two-out single to the gap in left-center field.
"The only thing I was thinking of at that point was to find something in the gap to get him in to score, and I was able to do that," said Pond, who entered the game second only to Brown with a .405 batting average. "It felt pretty good."
Evans said he had no doubt that his teammate would come through in that situation.
"He's been our clutch guy all year," said the right fielder. "He doesn't get to play in the field so when he comes to bat, that's his time to shine and he comes through every time. I had all my hope and confidence in him to get a basehit there and score me."
That effort was made that much more important after Sheldon finally got to Westfall in the top of the fourth on a two-out, two-run double by leadoff hitter Kellen Strahm. Further damage was negated when Evans went to the wall for a deep fly ball to the right field fence for the third out of the inning. Evans also had an impressive catch for the third out in the sixth when he retreated deep into the gap for a twisting shot by Strahm.
"Jared was huge," said Wolfe. "He was confident coming in here and he's a helluva athlete. You can't ask for anything more out there in right field. With his speed and his ability to play the game, obviously, that contributed a lot to what we accomplished."
For his part, Manley said you couldn't ask for much more from Saturday's matchup between the Southern Oregon Hybrid runners-up and his Special District 2 champions.
"It was an absolutely wonderful game," said Manley, whose team won the 2013 crown. "To be in the dugout to watch that was so fun. I wish we would've gotten an extra hit that they got — I think they got one more hit than us in a clutch time — but that happens in baseball. We hit a couple balls hard with guys in scoring position that could've changed the outcome but it didn't, and that's baseball."
SHELDON (23-9) NORTH MEDFORD (27-4)
ab r h bi ab r h bi
Strahm cf 4 0 2 2 Gillis cf 3 0 0 0
Land 2b/ss 3 0 0 0 Zavala c 1 0 1 0
Bellamy lf 4 0 1 0 Johnson pr 0 1 0 0
M. Hrbrt 1b 3 0 1 0 Brown ss 3 1 1 0
Frost dh/2b 3 0 0 0 Crofton 1b 2 0 0 0
Rtherham rf 3 0 0 0 Evans rf 3 1 2 2
Adams 3b 2 0 1 0 Berman 3b 3 0 0 0
Olsson c 3 0 0 0 Pond dh 2 0 1 1
Johnson pr 0 1 0 0 Pearson lf 2 0 0 0
J. Hrbrt ss/p 3 1 2 0 Cowden 2b 2 0 0 0
Brancato p 0 0 0 0 Fowler ph 1 0 0 0
Westfall p 0 0 0 0
Totals 28 2 7 2 Totals 22 3 5 3
Sheldon 000 200 0 —2
North Medford 201 000 x —3
E—Brown. LOB—Sheldon 9, North Medford 7. 2B—Strahm, Evans. SB—M. Herbert, Evans. CS—Adams.
IP H R ER BB SO
Brancato L, 11-3 5 5 3 3 5 5
J. Herbert 1 0 0 0 0 0
Westfall W, 13-2 7 7 2 2 4 7
Umpires—Home, Ron Pahle First, Steve Weidmann Third, Ken Dyber. T—1:55.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry