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North win nets 3-way tie in SOC

North's Branden De Luca, left, shoots past South Medford's Eric Rubey. De Luca scored both Tornado goals. / Roy Musitelli — — — Tornado's De Luca finishes off South, leaving the two and Ashland atop the SOC

Branden De Luca had struggled to finish all season for the North Medford boys soccer team.

Third-ranked South Medford had created bundles of chances but been hard-pressed to find the net on many all fall.

Those were some of the trends entering Tuesday's regular season-concluding, playoff- and conference championship-affecting match at Fichtner-Mainwaring Park.

One trend ended; the other didn't.

Score two for De Luca, and one monumental victory for the Black Tornado.

De Luca's second goal, in the first minute of overtime, lifted North to a 2-1 win over South and into a three-way tie for the Southern Oregon Conference title.

This game, to me, means a lot, said Tornado head coach Rich Garcia, who improved to 4-8 against the Panthers during his tenure. It ranks up there with the best victories I've had.

North hadn't beaten South since 1999, and the Tornado last earned a piece of the SOC championship in '94.

This SOC race, however, isn't yet complete.

The Tornado (7-5-2, 5-2 SOC), Panthers (10-2-1, 5-2) and Ashland (9-4, 5-2) each get a share of the crown, but they will determine the Nos. 1-3 seeds for the Class 4A state playoffs with a pair of matches Thursday and Saturday.

North, 2-0 against its co-champs, has first choice of where it wants to be in the mini-tournament, which will be drawn up today.

The Tornado is likely to choose the bye and await the winner of the other two.

South, which beat the Grizzlies in head-to-head play, gets second pick and will probably select playing at home against Ashland on Thursday, with a starting time of — p.m.

The loser of that match would be No. 3, and the winner would move on to face North to settle spots — and 2.

If this scenario stays true to form, the Tornado would host the Panthers or travel to Ashland for a — p.m. Saturday clash.

Those are all things yet to occur.

What happened Tuesday was the sixth straight Black and Blue match to be decided by one goal, and the fourth in that span to need extra time.

South enjoyed the majority of possession and fired 22 shots to North's 11, but the Panthers again struggled to capitalize.

This is four matches in a row where we've owned the game, but not put the ball in the net and kept the opponent in the game, said South head coach Dave Potter, who slipped to 4-2 against the Tornado. And on this occasion, North, like Roseburg (a 2-1 shootout winner over the Panthers on Oct. 7), got just a couple of opportunities and made good on them.

Neither side made good on any chances in the first half, with South building a 9-2 edge in shots.

Tornado junior fullback Max Brown twice denied the Panthers by clearing balls off the goal line, nixing efforts from South forwards Corey O'Neill, a senior, and Shane Holiday, a junior.

North nearly struck near the end of the half, when junior forward Matt Harriss misfired in close off a feed from junior midfielder James Kidwell.

Two minutes into the second stanza, the 42nd overall, the Tornado started the scoring.

Junior midfielder Brice Walters sent Jeremy Bilodeau, playing right midfield, down the flank. The junior dribbled to the end line before driving a low cross to the near post, where De Luca one-timed a right-footed volley into the net.

It was all textbook, really, said Bilodeau, who also played fullback for North. You take a touch down, you take a touch toward the inside and you cross.

South thought it had an answer just moments later, but O'Neill's right-footed poke off senior sweeper Spencer Hunter's cross caromed off the far post and was covered by Tornado junior goalkeeper Oscar Benitez.

In about the 55th minute, the other post rejected another O'Neill foray, this one a header after Hunter had knocked the ball past Benitez on a cross from junior fullback Kevin Potter.

The Panthers finally broke through in the 61st, as Hunter dribbled up the right side and chipped forward to O'Neill for a deep header that beat Benitez, coming off his line, and stayed under the crossbar.

The teams battled back and forth for the rest of regulation, with each getting off four shots without a score.

Then, in the 81st minute, North unearthed the game-winner.

Senior forward/midfielder Richard Snapp slipped past Hunter down the left side, kept his feet despite stumbling and drove a pass toward the penalty spot. Rushing in, De Luca couldn't reach the ball initially, but it glanced off South senior defensive midfielder Andrew Egan, hustling back toward his goal, and went right to De Luca.

The stocky junior turned and finished in traffic for a 2-1 lead.

It came right to me, and I didn't really know what to do at first, said De Luca, who owned one goal all season before Tuesday. I just knew I was right in front of the goal and hit the net.

The Panthers' best chance to equalize came in the second half of overtime and was again generated by O'Neill.

Using his muscle to hold off a Tornado defender behind him on the left edge of the penalty box, O'Neill separated with a cut to the inside, touched once more and slid for a right-footed blast that was smothered by the charging Benitez.

I just like to come out and be really aggressive and go for the ball, said Benitez, who did that well in his first match back after missing three with an injury to his right shin.

A few minutes later, the final whistle blew to set off howls and hugs for North, which would have missed the state playoffs with a loss but now can earn the conference's No. — seed.

Those stakes just added to a victory that would have been particularly sweet to the Tornado, no matter the circumstances.

This is what I waited for all year, said Snapp, who joins left midfielder Erik Higgins as North's only two seniors.

Honestly, you could tell that they dominated us on shot ratio and everything. But I mean, I think it was just the fact that these guys knew. ... It's just something where we came out with that attitude like, 'We have to do this ' it's a do-or-die situation.' Because if we didn't, we wouldn't be going to the playoffs.

On the other side, South was left to lament another barrel of near-misses that led to its demise.

Sometimes, we just kinda think too much and don't do what we know how to do, Hunter said. And then sometimes, like when we hit the post, it's just an inch one way or the other, and it's in.

North?s Branden De Luca, left, shoots past South Medford?s Eric Rubey. De Luca scored both Tornado goals. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune images