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Taking the Lead

Success is really nothing new for North Medford senior Taylor Schmidt.

Five years ago she pitched her 12-and-under Black Tornado squad to the state championship, earning four final-day victories to clinch the summer softball crown.

Off the field, she's been a 4.0 student from the moment she entered Hedrick Middle School to her upcoming last day as one of 13 valedictorians at North Medford High.

But as smart and acclaimed as Schmidt is, even she couldn't have predicted where she'll be making her final stand as a Black Tornado.

Buoyed by the pitching and hitting prowess of Schmidt, North Medford (25-5) will be making its return to the state championship game Saturday for the first time since 2002 when the Black Tornado takes on Sunset (24-6). The Class 6A final will begin at 1 p.m. at the OSU Softball Complex in Corvallis, and will be broadcast live on the radio at KGAY (580-AM).

It will be the school's fifth championship game since Medford High split in 1986, and sixth overall for the Black Tornado. State titles were earned in 1984, '97, '98 and 2002 under Larry Binney.

"I think that we wanted ourselves to do as good as we could, but no one expected us to be in the championship game," says Schmidt, whose team finished second in the Southwest Conference to reigning 6A state champion Grants Pass. "I think we've surprised a lot of people."

As one of only two seniors on the North roster, Schmidt deserves a great deal of credit for her team's sensational run, according to Black Tornado coach Mike Mayben.

"Taylor, as a senior, has become the consummate leader of a team that you could ever ask for," says Mayben. "She's the kind of kid that the other kids believe they have an opportunity to win whenever she's pitching, but she will also help keep the team calm and focused on the field."

"She doesn't lose her temper on the field and doesn't get rattled," adds the fourth-year head coach. "We've now played a number of teams that have great pitching and great hitting and she's able to overcome the emotion and the intensity of the game. That's pretty phenomenal for a high school kid to do that game in and game out."

The 5-foot-9, 145-pound standout has outdueled pitching peers Kaitlin Inglesby of Central Catholic, who has committed to NCAA champion Washington, and Portland State-bound Anna Bertrand of McMinnville thus far in the playoffs and not batted an eyelash.

"When you have the kind of consistency that she brings," says Mayben of the Oregon Tech-bound Schmidt, "the other kids can come in loose and relaxed and just play."

Schmidt's calm demeanor, however, belies the competitive fire that burns inside.

She stepped on the field as a freshman at North Medford expecting to make a difference, and has logged a considerable amount of time training and preparing to fulfill that obligation. She's consistently hard at work at the field at least an hour before practice time and one of many Tornado players intent on keeping at it even after players have been released.

"When you've got your best players doing that, all the others fall in line and as a coach you just sit back and enjoy the ride," says Mayben.

That ride has included a handful of record performances this season by Schmidt and another by junior Jenna Stevens. At 24-5 with a 1.56 ERA, Schmidt already owns the single-season school record for wins — Brandy Price won 23 in 1991 — and the 18-year-old right-hander also will break a first-place tie in games pitched with Price (29 in 1991) when she steps inside the circle Saturday for her 30th appearance.

Schmidt's eight home runs this season eclipsed the previous record of six shared by Terri Walker (1982) and Carrie Larson (1984), and she's two doubles shy of the record mark of 11 tied this season by Stevens and shared by Stephanie Adams (1999), Steph Coe (1999) and Missy Coe (1998).

"Hitting is something that's so fun for me to do," adds Schmidt, who is batting .472 with a team-high 35 RBIs and an .843 slugging percentage. "I always like to get up there to bat."

Junior McKenna Storey leads North with a .486 batting average and sophomore Amanda Freitas is hitting .480, while sophomore catcher Amanda Wolfe has 31 RBIs, 10 doubles and two home runs. Stevens is hitting .383 with two more runs scored (33) than Storey (31).

It's that total team effort that Schmidt says is the true reason for her team's success this year.

"My team's there for me and I'm going to be there for them," she says. "I just take that and try to be the best leader I can be. It's pretty easy when I know my team's there for me 100 percent."

Another boost for Schmidt was when the state opted to move the pitching rubber back to 43 feet. Always a pitcher with great movement on her offerings, the extra 3 feet has just given her more room to work.

"It definitely has made her more effective," says Wolfe, who has been catching Schmidt since 2004. "Her drop ball has always been good but this year I can definitely see it has a lot more movement and half the time I can hardly catch it. With her movement, that definitely counteracts speed any day. She never has a flat pitch."

And, like her team, continues to be on the rise.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

North Medford senior pitcher Taylor Schmidt has led the Black Tornado back to the state championship game after a seven-year hiatus. - Jim Craven