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Tornado, Apollos defy odds to meet in 6A final

The ability to defy expectations has been a trait enjoyed by the softball teams at North Medford and Sunset high schools during their trek to today's Class 6A state championship game.

Neither team finished as a conference champion, nor were they given much of a chance to be the last teams standing when the state playoffs kicked off two weeks ago.

But as a testament to the character of each team, here they stand with an opportunity to secure their own slice of history.

"I think they've taken a really similar route to us in that they were second in a really good conference like we were," says North Medford coach Mike Mayben. "I don't think they were a team people expected to get this far just like us, but here we are."

The Black Tornado (25-5) will be vying for its first state championship since 2002 and fifth overall when play begins at 1 p.m. at the Oregon State softball complex in Corvallis. Sunset (24-6) will be making its first appearance in the title game.

Today's game features an intriguing matchup inside the circle, pitting steady senior Taylor Schmidt of North Medford against the Apollos' freshman phenom Jessie Moore.

"A lot like when Taylor was younger, this kid (Moore) has kinda stepped in and demanded that she get the ball," says Mayben. "You've got to admire that."

Moore, the Metro League pitcher of the year, has allowed three runs in four playoff games — helping Sunset knock off two conference champions along the way in Grants Pass (Southwest Conference) and South Salem (Central Valley Conference).

The hard-throwing right-hander pitched nine innings of shutout ball in a 5-0 win over Forest Grove in the quarterfinals, then returned to strike out 14 and scatter six hits in a 1-0 semifinal win over South Salem.

Physically, the sturdy Moore does not look like the typical freshman, and she hasn't been overwhelmed mentally. Still, the state championship experience isn't your regular Saturday on the diamond.

"We've got to be real disciplined at the plate and patient and hope that when she makes her mistakes that we capitalize," says Mayben.

The Apollos earned their spot in the finals in the bottom of the seventh inning against South Salem when junior shortstop Meghan Lyons singled and advanced to second on a sacrifice. After a walk, junior third baseman Sara Del Balzo sent a hard grounder to shortstop Alexa Peterson, who tried to swipe a quick tag on Lyons as they crossed paths but missed out on the big play when the ball got loose upon contact. Lyons wound up scoring.

Junior center fielder Kristina Trindle and utility player Julia Johnson joined Lyons and Moore in earning first-team all-conference honors for Sunset. Coached by Spencer Mills, the Apollos don't have a senior on their roster.

North Medford boasts only two seniors in Schmidt and right fielder Brittany Griffor. Schmidt, the SWC player of the year, enters today's game with a 24-5 record and 1.56 ERA and is also hitting .472 with a team-high eight home runs and 35 RBIs.

The Black Tornado's run to the title game has been a little more daunting than Sunset's if you consider that North has had to beat three conference champions in its four playoff victories. The Tornado opened with a 9-2 rout of Westview before dispatching three straight league champions in Central Catholic (2-0 on the road), Oregon City (2-1 at home) and McMinnville (3-2 on the road).

"I think in all our games, we've been the underdog," says Schmidt. "Coming out and beating teams no one thought we'd beat and making it to the championship game has been so exciting."

Schmidt has received considerable support this season from a potent lineup that has included fellow first-team all-SWC honorees Amanda Wolfe (sophomore catcher), Jenna Stevens (junior shortstop), McKenna Storey (junior center fielder) and Amanda Freitas.

For Schmidt and Griffor, today's game will be especially interesting since their senior class is slated to go through graduation ceremonies beginning at 6:30 tonight.

Schmidt is one of 13 valedictorians, and she and Griffor have had their spots moved toward the end of the ceremony in the hope they'll make it back in time.

And, who knows, maybe they'll be able to share some hardware as well.

"I think just going out there (today) and hopefully getting a win would be so exciting," says Taylor Schmidt. "Coming back to Medford and going to graduation with a (championship) medal would be awesome."

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