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Extra-special title triumph

CORVALLIS — North Medford's softball team never took the easy way out leading up to Saturday's Class 6A state championship game, so why start now?

The Black Tornado opened a 3-0 lead through the top of the fifth inning but still needed extra-inning heroics to overcome Sunset for a 4-3, nine-inning victory at the OSU Softball Complex.

"We just wanted this so much," said North Medford senior pitcher Taylor Schmidt, whose team won its third straight one-run affair. "We've been the underdogs in almost every game we've played so we just wanted to keep surprising people."

North Medford (26-5) secured its first softball state championship in seven years with and the fifth overall for the Black Tornado, which is now 5-1 in title games.

Helping this one stand out is that North had numerous players step up in big situations against Sunset (24-7). Schmidt struck out six with three walks in a complete game, and junior shortstop Jenna Stevens was 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles, but the usual standouts happily took a back seat in the pivotal ninth inning.

Sophomore Amanda Wolfe opened the ninth by getting the only hit of the day for the Nos. 4-6 batters for North, shooting a hard liner into the outfield. Junior Tejay Schmidt followed with a slapper that skipped under the glove of Sunset first baseman Hanna Boyd and could only be slowed down by second baseman Sierra Anderson.

With courtesy runner Sierra Berryessa now on second in place of Wolfe, fellow freshman Hannah Leming went about trying to advance her to third. Saddled with two strikes after one bunt attempt went foul, Leming came through in the clutch with a short chopper to third baseman Sara Del Balzo to advance both runners on the ground out.

Older sister Kelsey Leming then got the call to duty and followed suit with a perfectly placed suicide squeeze bunt to plate Berryessa and put North on top 4-3.

"I was kind of nervous about it, but I knew that I could just go out and do my job and we'd score so it wasn't that bad," the junior Leming said. "We do squeeze plays a lot so that we can get it down when we need to."

Still, Kelsey Leming's reaction as she finished running toward first base showed how Saturday's environment made her bunt that much more special.

"I think I jumped," she said of her reaction. "I was really happy just to know that I'd helped my team out and helped us win."

The work was far from over, however.

After opposing pitcher Jessie Moore drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the ninth, courtesy runner Katie Beasley was sacrificed to second.

Hoping to close the door, Taylor Schmidt instead had to watch helplessly as Meghan Lyons' sharp liner made its way to Brittany Griffor in right field. The senior fielded the ball cleanly and came up with a dart to Wolfe at home to keep Beasley at third.

After Lyons was allowed to steal second, Taylor Schmidt buckled down and got No. 2 hitter Kristina Trindle to hit a soft comebacker that Schmidt, in turn, tossed over to sister Tejay for the game's final out.

"This is just one of the best days I've had," said Taylor Schmidt, the Southwest Conference player of the year. "Coming out here and playing with my best friends trying to get the title — and actually winning it — has been so great. And to head home now and go graduate, I couldn't ask for a better day."

Griffor echoed those sentiments. Her final high school game began with her playing the national anthem on the saxophone after only taking up the instrument as a freshman, and then she followed with her team's first hit in the third inning.

"It was my last game and I was just going to give it my all," said Griffor, one of only two seniors on the field Saturday. "I was really nervous, I'm not going to lie, but I just tried to focus on what I had to get done and give it up for my team."

In the third, Griffor's drag bunt made its way into short right field, and she took second when Shelby Hankee's throw to first base got away. Sophomore No. 9 hitter Amanda Freitas followed with a perfectly placed bunt for a single to put runners on the corners, and Stevens' bunt single plated Griffor. Junior center fielder McKenna Storey then brought Freitas home on a fielder's choice at second base for a 2-0 lead.

The Tornado bumped its lead to 3-0 in the fifth when Freitas, who was 2-for-3, dropped down another perfect bunt to reach safely with two outs. After a stolen base, Stevens lined a shot toward second base that could only be knocked down, and Freitas never broke stride in scoring.

"The bottom of our lineup has executed well for us all season," said North Medford coach Mike Mayben. "Those kids just went up with the confidence that they could do the job. If we asked them to do something, we didn't get a dirty look ever. It was more like, 'Yeah, we're going to get it done and that's what's best for the team.'"

Sunset's Angela Umschied blasted a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the fifth on a full-count pitch Schmidt said "missed its spot," and the Apollos tied the game in the bottom of the sixth after Moore laced a two-run double to the wall in left-center field.

"It was 3-1 and I didn't want to walk her," said Schmidt, "but I definitely got too much of the plate. I was like, 'Uh oh' after that, but I knew the team was going to be there for me and come out and get another run, which we did."

To hear Mayben tell it, that confidence in each other has been something the team has enjoyed all season.

"From Day 1 when we started working out doing speed and agility, these kids were committed and they had a belief that they could do something special," said the fourth-year coach. "What that was, well that was up in the air, but they believed they could do something special and they had a bond that I haven't seen in my coaching years."

Stevens agreed.

"We've kind of labeled ourselves the traveling underdogs," said the junior, whose team finished second in the SWC. "We weren't picked to win many of the games we played and we had some tough road games to get here. We weren't really picked to win this one, either, but it's the confidence we have in each other that mattered. We have a lot of trust and we're a family on and off the field."

And now that family has something special to put on the mantle and enjoy for years to come.

North Medford 002 010 001 — 4 8 1

Sunset 000 012 000 — 3 9 2

Ta. Schmidt and Wolfe; Moore and Silvius. W — Schmidt (25-5). L — Moore. 2B — S: Lyons, Moore. HR — S: Umschied.

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

North Medford players huddle around the Class 6A state championship trophy after defeating Sunset in extra innings on Saturday in Corvallis. - Jamie Lusch