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Pulling out the stops

When Jeff Thomas was approached about taking over the North Medford girls soccer team this fall, one of his first actions involved turning to Hayley Haas and letting her know the Black Tornado goal was hers to defend.

As far as decisions go, that one couldn’t have paid off more.

With Haas as the final obstacle of a North Medford defense loaded with impenetrable forces, the Black Tornado has thrived and earned the program’s first state championship berth.

North Medford (12-2-4) has recorded four straight shutouts to open the Class 6A state playoffs and has 10 overall in 18 matches. The next opportunity to extend that streak for Haas and company comes at 6 p.m. Saturday at Hillsboro Stadium against defending state champion Tualatin (15-2-1).

“It was just a matter of going, ‘OK, this is your opportunity and we aren’t going anywhere unless you’re good so you have to get in the box and do the work,’” says Thomas. “To be a successful team and have a championship run, your keeper has to give you a chance when there are breakdowns, and she does that for us. She has not given up a soft goal all year and that’s unusually good. She makes the saves she’s supposed to make and also some other really incredible ones.”

For all the praise, the 5-foot-7 Haas defers credit to the 10 teammates in front of her who sacrifice just as much to keep the sheet clean. Her backbone of support has come from defenders Ashley Parker (senior), Sarah Thomas (junior), Meghan Cowan (sophomore) and Michala Denn (sophomore), but senior midfielders Bailey O’Connor, Tori Foy and Sydney Thomas have been instrumental forces, along with senior forward Halley Folsom.

“I don’t think any of it is me,” says the 17-year-old senior. “I just kind of pick up the pieces when things break down, but really they save me so many times and keep most of the action away from me.”

“My defense is absolutely flawless,” adds Haas. “They just work so hard and they’re so poised and calm in everything they do and so confident. It just really helps me when they’re confident, and when they’re calm it makes me more confident.”

All of that calm confidence will be put to the test for a final marquee match on Saturday. Tualatin, champions of the Three Rivers League, has outscored teams 41-9 heading into the finale. The Timberwolves will be vying for their third title in four years and fifth overall in nine championship appearances.

“Tualatin is fast, they’re physical and they get into the attack very quickly,” says Thomas. “They love to push that ball up, and defensively I think they’re sound.”

That said, North Medford isn’t going into the contest believing anything other than that it has earned this opportunity and is also deserving of the crown.

“The reality is they expect to win and that’s what’s huge about this,” says Thomas. “They know if we can stick together and work as a group, we can beat them. If we can put one or two in and play defense the way we’re taught, we’re going to be fine and they know that.”

The road has not been easy for the Black Tornado, which hadn’t advanced beyond the second round since 1998. Still trying to get a feel for a different style of play this season, North Medford started its journey by going 2-1-2 and stood 4-2-4 before reeling off eight straight victories.

Of the 12 goals allowed all season, only two have come in the last eight games.

“We had a little bit of a bumpy start but I think we’re peaking at the right time and it’s all just coming together, and we’ve kinda realized what we wanted,” says Haas, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average on a team that ranks first in the state at the 6A level with a combined 3.94 GPA. “It’s always been our goal to get here, but we’ve finally realized we have the talent and the heart to do it.”

Haas says the team’s camaraderie and willingness to set aside egos has really come into play during what she’s termed a “dream” season.

“We’re just a team that loves each other and we just work very hard as a team,” she says. “I don’t think we would be as successful as we are this year without the fact that every single person is on board and believes in what we’re doing. We all have that team chemistry and have our mindset on the same things.”

The senior leadership on North Medford’s team has paved the way for that unity, says coach Thomas.

“These six senior starters collectively and Hayley leading from the goal box have done everything we’ve asked,” he says. “If we’re missing one of them, we probably can’t get there (to the state final). We need every single one of them. That’s what’s so cool about this group, there’s not one superstar, it’s just everyone working together to get the job done.”

O’Connor had been North Medford’s goalkeeper in recent years but her preferred place has been out in the field. Allowing O’Connor to blossom elsewhere and getting Haas back to the confident club soccer goalie she’s been for over a decade has helped solidify matters.

“Hayley’s technically very sound and has worked with keeper coaches for years,” says Thomas. “She’s a good athlete and she does exactly what you ask her to do, but the biggest thing is she just outworks everybody else. It’s not because she has the physical skills the best one’s have, she just outworks everyone, and that’s only going to breed success.”

When she took up soccer, Haas initially played up front, but when her team’s goalkeeper moved away, she was asked to make the switch to become a net-minder.

“I was a little nervous at first because I wasn’t sure it was the best thing for me,” she says, “but as I started playing (goalkeeper), it actually turned out to be something I loved. I love that it allows me to be jumping and diving and kinda flying around and that I get to kinda go crazy every now and then.”

Haas and company have shown resolve in the face of trying tests throughout the playoffs.

Sydney Thomas’ goal off an assist by O’Connor in the 22nd minute set the stage for a 1-0 win over Newberg, but only after Haas thwarted a threat in the final 10 minutes with a diving save. Sydney Thomas again tallied the only goal in the 68th minute in a 1-0 win at Jesuit in the second round — off another O’Connor assist — but Haas still needed to come up with a one-on-one stop as well as a leaping denial of a 33-yard free kick with 4 1/2 minutes to play.

“When she made that save, they knew they were getting out of the second round, and now we’re onto a different journey to try and win the state championship,” coach Thomas recalls of the upper-V deflection.

Folsom scored the only regulation goal allowed by Forest Grove in this year’s state playoffs in the 54th minute following a throw-in by Sydney Thomas, and successful penalty kicks by Cowan, O’Connor, Sarah Thomas and Foy helped decide a cold semifinals match at West Salem on Tuesday that saw Haas stop two of the first four PKs directed her way.

Haas also supplied some big regulation saves to give her team a chance in the semifinals.

“It feels really good when I make a really good slide tackle or am blocking a penalty kick,” says Haas, “but really just being able to hold it down for my team is what feels the best. I just look at it as if I can do my part and keep the ball out of the net, then that gives our team the best chance to be successful. The best part is just contributing to what everyone else is doing to help us win.”

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

North Medford senior goalkeeper Hayley Haas (front) and her senior teammates have been a force on defense. From the left, the others are Sydney Thomas, Bailey O'Connor, Ashley Parker, Halley Folsom and Tori Foy. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.