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Tornado turned back

PORTLAND — As soon as Jesuit’s Emily Preble got her bat on the ball in the bottom of the eighth inning, North Medford center fielder Olivia Lethlean knew where the hit was going.

It was going to not just clear her, but it was going to leave the park over the center field wall. The one-out, walk-off home run would end North Medford’s season with a 3-2 loss in the semifinals of the 6A state softball championships.

“I thought it was out for sure,” she said after all the tears had dried in the aftermath of the game. “And I knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Still, when you play for North Medford, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Lethlean turned on the jets and raced back to the fence — just in case — and had her hand on the chain links when the ball cleared.

At North Medford, you never leave anything to chance.

The victory for the Crusaders (29-2), propelled them into the Saturday championship game at the Oregon State softball complex in Corvallis. They will face upstart Metro League rival Glencoe, which tied for fourth in league play at 7-7 but bounced Grants Pass 10-1 to make the championship game.

North Medford’s season ends at 27-3.

The North Medford Way was the only thing that had the Black Tornado in position for Preble to break their hearts in the first place.

The Tornado couldn’t touch Jesuit starter Olivia Strickland for the first five innings. The Crusader right-hander had a perfect game going into the top of the sixth, and all North Medford could muster to that point was a couple of impressive foul balls.

The Crusaders got their lead in the bottom of the third inning when Victorya Stallworth lined a vicious shot off the glove of North Medford third baseman Taelor Mayben that scored two runs.

The way Strickland was pitching, that would have been good enough against just about anybody below college level.

The light was fading on the Black Tornado season in the top of the sixth. Cassie Campbell proved Strickland human after all with a clean single to left field. Ashley Ripplinger bunted her up to second base, but when Alex Berry bounced out for the second out of the inning, the rally looked dead.

The Black Tornado didn’t earn its considerable reputation over the years sitting back and accepting things, though. Lethlean and her flying wheels beat out another bunt; Campbell fled to third, then on the first pitch Lethlean stole second.

North Medford needed to make something — anything — happen at that point. It was Mayben who did it. She hit a routine roller to Jesuit shortstop Kory Oleson, which is tantamount to hitting it to a vacuum cleaner.

Oleson fielded it cleanly while Mayben raced in desperation down the first-base line. Oleson gunned the ball over, but Mayben belly-flopped into the bag a hair ahead of the arrival of the ball.

Campbell came in to score, of course, but while the Crusaders were watching Mayben’s 10-point dive into first, Lethlean was rounding third and heading home with the tying run.

Said Mayben, “Honestly, when I got to bat I prayed. Once I made contact I never wanted to reach first so much in my life. I dived in because on artificial turf the (skid) speeds you up into the bag.”

Coaching at third base, head coach Mike Mayben didn’t need to tell Lethlean to keep going. It’s not an automatic call at North Medford, but sometimes it doesn’t need to be.

“I just pointed to home plate as quietly as I could,” Mayben said. “I didn’t have to with Olivia’s speed.”

Suddenly Strickland’s shell was cracked and the game was on all over again.

Two feckless innings for both teams later, it was over just as suddenly.

Pitcher Sarah Thomas, who had much to do with North Medford getting as far as it did this season, doesn’t even remember the pitch to Preble.

“I honestly don’t,” the senior said. “But you kinda know when somebody hits it well enough where it’s going.”

Mike Mayben had no regrets about the 2016 Black Tornado and the way the season ended.

“You had two great teams today,” he said, “who day in and day out play great softball.

“Jesuit is almost the mirror image of our kids. They have the great pitcher in the circle. They play great defense.

“It’s just that today they got the big hit at the end.”

North Medford;000;002;00;—;2;2;1

Jesuit;002;000;01;—;3;4;2

Thomas and Kucera; Strickland and Preble. W — Strickland. L — Thomas (23-3). HR — J: Preble.

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North Medford coach Mike Mayben stands in the middle of a team huddle in the eighth inning of the Class 6A state semifinal playoff game against Jesuit. Jesuit won, 3-2, with a home run in the eighth. PHOTO BY NORM MAVES JR.
Olivia Lethlean of the Black Tornado puts down a bunt in the state semifinal game against Jesuit Tuesday. PHOTO BY NORM MAVES JR.