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Tornado tough

North Medford softball coach Mike Mayben and his assistants spent the days leading up to Tuesday’s Class 6A softball state semifinal with Tualatin preaching one simple thing, and it had nothing to do with batting stances or fielding fundamentals.

While the latter had plenty to do with the Black Tornado’s exhilarating 4-3 win over the Timberwolves in a battle that came down to one dramatic seventh-inning play, the former was just as vital at North Medford High.

North Medford scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to erase a 2-1 deficit and then staved off a Tualatin rally in the seventh when the combination of right fielder Jordan Neathamer, second baseman Alex Barry and third baseman Taelor Mayben teamed to deny an extra base to Tualatin’s Samantha Caron following her RBI double as her bid for third resulted in a game-ending out.

“For us the whole week was focused on what it means to be poised,” said coach Mayben. “That kind of pressure and being put in that situation and handling it like they did are the definition of being a poised team.”

By virtue of the late-game heroics, third-seeded North Medford (29-1) advanced to its fourth 6A state championship game in six years and ninth overall. North Medford won it all in 1997, 1998, 2002, 2009, 2012 and 2013. In the Medford High days, the Black Tornado also earned a state title in 1984.

“I just know how blessed we are because a lot of people don’t get a single opportunity and we’ve been blessed to get back there a few times and enjoy the ride along the way,” said the 12th-year coach, whose team last finished as runner-up in 2014. “This group is a special group to get to have that experience with.”

North Medford will next face fifth-seeded Westview Saturday at the Oregon State University Softball Complex in Corvallis. The Wildcats (27-4) won 7-1 at No. 1 seed Oregon City in Tuesday’s other 6A semifinal.

It took all North Medford could muster to make that matchup happen against constant pressure applied by Tualatin (24-4), which had base runners in all but one inning.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but gosh there’s no feeling like this,” said North Medford third baseman Taelor Mayben. “This is so fun and so special and something we’ve looked forward to our whole lives and now it’s finally here. I’m so proud of this team.”

Senior Ashley Ripplinger plated Olivia Lethlean with the game’s first run in the first inning, but Tualatin roared back with two runs in the third inning on consecutive RBI doubles by Taylor Alton and Zoe Olivera.

The Black Tornado struggled to put hits together against Tualatin starter Megan Woodward but made some adjustments in the bottom of the sixth inning and broke through in a big way.

Rylan Austin laced a leadoff double to the gap and, after Ripplinger sacrificed her to third, the junior came home on a clutch RBI double to right-center by senior Mahal Miles that went over the outstretched glove of center fielder Olivera to tie the game at 2-all.

“Mahal coming through with that composure to get the hit that we needed to drive in a run was fantastic,” said coach Mayben. “You also can’t forget Ashley moving the runner to second because even if we hit the ball to the fence there’s no guarantee that we actually score on that hit.”

After a groundout by Dani Milam moved Miles to third base, Neathamer added another clutch hit with an RBI triple down the right-field line for the go-ahead score and freshman Lauren Barry made it 4-2 with a hard hit that split the left side of the infield.

“We knew it was going to happen because our lineup is so solid and our girls are so good, it just sometimes takes us a while to warm up to the pitcher,” said Taelor Mayben. “But I’m so glad that that it finally happened.”

Whatever joy that three-run frame brought paled in comparison to the seventh inning feeling for the Black Tornado. Woodward reached on an error to start the inning but Austin got two flyball outs to Lethlean in center field before Caron stepped up and cranked a shot off the right-center fence.

Caron had it easy to second base but the No. 3 hitter turned toward third and set in motion a wild finish as Neathamer relayed the ball to Barry and she made an instant turn to Mayben at third with a pinpoint throw that had the Tualatin runner beaten by two steps.

“The relay from the outfield to third was just an incredible relay,” said coach Mayben. “That ball from Alex had to be perfect and Taelor had to hold onto it and they executed both parts of that.”

The game-ending out brought about a frenzy of celebration from the North Medford players and coaches but left the Timberwolves wondering what might have been.

“They absolutely made a great play,” said Tualatin head coach Jenna Wilson. “It’s a game of inches and it just didn’t go our way this time.”

“It was just two very, very good programs out there,” she added. “North Medford is a wonderful program.”

And one that continues to impress.

“I just have full confidence in my team and I know that no matter what happens we’ll rise above because we’ve trained and put in so much hard work,” said Miles. “We’re capable of anything and we’ve proved that.”

Tualatin;002;000;1;—;3;10;3

North Medford;100;003;x;—;4;7;2

Woodward and Caron; Austin and Salvador. W — Austin (24-1). L — Woodward. 2B — T: Alton, Olivera, Caron; NM: Milam, Austin, Miles. 3B — NM: Neathamer.

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

North Medford pitcher Rylan Austin delivers a pitch in the fourth inning of the Black Tornado's 4-3 Class 6A state semifinal victory over Tualatin Tuesday at North Medford High. [ANDY ATKINSON/FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]
North Medford's Jordan Neathammer connects for a triple in the sixth inning Tuesday against Tualatin. [ANDY ATKINSON/FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]