It may be early in the Southwest Conference baseball season, but there’s no question South Medford needed a win Tuesday over South Eugene at Harry & David Field.

A couple bad innings here and there had pinned the Panthers with three losses in four league games coming in, and a team with such high preseason hopes simply needed its fortunes to change.

After South Eugene used four hits to score three first-inning runs, it didn’t look good for South Medford.

But the Panthers stuck to their guns, chipping away with single runs in the third and fourth innings before breaking out in a big way with a seventh-inning rally that resulted in a 4-3 comeback victory over the Axemen.

“I’m proud of our kids for finding a way and playing through the seventh inning,” said South Medford head coach Ray Smith, whose team improved to 6-5 overall and 2-3 in SWC play. “We could’ve given up there and rolled over, but I think we grew a little bit today and hopefully that’s kind of a springboard into the things we need to do to compete in this league. South Eugene is a good doggone club and it could’ve gone either way today.”

Down 3-2 and with one last gasp at turning things around, Panthers junior Clint Campbell opened the seventh with a single and later stole second base. After a groundout by junior Jaalen Owens advanced Campbell to third, fellow junior Jack Thompson came through with a seeing-eye grounder that eluded the reach of relief pitcher Bryce Boettcher and left charging shortstop Jonah Sherman with no play to be made as the tying run scored.

Courtesy runner Sebastian Molina was inserted for Thompson but didn’t stay long at first base as senior designated hitter Ethan Whitney sent a towering shot to deep center field for a walk-off RBI triple.

“It definitely felt good off the bat,” said Whitney, who previously was 0-for-3 with five runners stranded Tuesday. “I saw the trajectory and the center fielder running back and it just cleared him and right there it was just immediate gratification.”

The Panthers swarmed Molina after he came home safely, then turned their attentions to Whitney on third base for some well-deserved congratulations.

“We really rely on Ethan to give us those kind of at-bats in those clutch situations,” said Smith. “His at-bat prior to that was not very good — and I certainly let him know about it — and he responded. I’m just so proud of him and his effort and the things he does for our club. It was great to see him have that success and fortunately get it out there where they couldn’t catch it.”

The late rally clipped South Eugene’s hopes of a third straight SWC win after the Axemen (6-7, 4-3 SWC) swept league favorite Sheldon on Monday.

“It’s really frustrating,” said South Eugene head coach Danny Sales. “The chances looked good, but that’s why they play 21 outs and seven innings. It came down to the seventh inning and that’s now our fourth loss of the year by one run, so we’ve got to find a way to win the little ones. That one hurts for sure.”

After showing some first-inning nerves in his first varsity start, sophomore right-hander Rickey Boortz held South Eugene scoreless with only two hits and no walks allowed in the final six innings.

Boortz’s effort, which included two strikeouts, was vital given the Panthers played in Roseburg on Monday and needed someone to ease their pitch-count issues heading into Saturday’s doubleheader against North Medford.

“I’m just so proud of Rickey,” said Smith. “He just did a great job overcoming a tough first inning. There was no give-up in that young man and his teammates stayed behind him and we started making a couple plays.”

Rory James, Boettcher and Sherman had consecutive singles to put the pressure on in the first inning, with Isaiah Molaski, Tristan Vidal and Zach Menegat plating runs to give South Eugene a 3-0 cushion.

The Panthers trimmed their deficit in the third inning after Jacob Melton had a leadoff triple and scored on a single by Owens, who finished 2-for-4.

In the fourth, Robby Carle had a one-out ground-rule double and later scored on a single by Jaron Emerson that glanced off starting pitcher Patrick Pierson to make it 3-2.

South Medford loaded the base in the fifth against Boettcher but the freshman standout was able to wiggle out of harm without giving up a run.

When it came down to their final at-bat, Whitney said the Panther dugout was full of optimism they could get the job done.

“I knew we were going to put some balls in play and get some runners,” said the senior. “We just had to execute and push them around the bases to get them in.”

They hope to continue doing that with some consistency.

“We have to get some wins going and get some momentum going so we really needed this to give us a chance at that,” said Whitney. “Now we’ve just got to keep the momentum going up.”

South Eugene;300;000;0;—;3;6;0

South Medford;001;100;2;—;4;8;3

Pierson, Boettcher (5) and Marsh; Boortz and Thompson. W — Boortz (1-0). L — Boettcher. 2B — SM: Owens, Carle. 3B — SM: Melton, Whitney.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry