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North Medford volleyball finds balance with pair of seniors

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Led by Audrey Yechout and Jackie Aukusitino, North looks to build on Rogue Valley Classic success

On opposite sides of North Medford’s attack, Audrey Yechout and Jackie Aukusitino are called upon each and every match to deliver in the most tense, pressure-packed situations.

In many ways, the Black Tornado volleyball team’s outside hitters represent their greatest strength, and they’re capable of playing just about anywhere while rarely coming off the floor.

The two seniors have contrasting styles — Yechout is known for her strong arm swing and high energy, while Aukusitino is a steadying force, calm, collected and always focused. So far this season, the contrast has proved to be complementary, elevating each other and the rest of the team.

“They’re both very positive people,” North Medford head coach Josh Elbert says. “Audrey is very high-energy — she definitely stands out in that regard. Jackie is more of quiet consistency, kind of a steady force, which is really nice. She doesn’t get too high, she doesn’t get too low. They balance each other pretty well.”

The two are part of a Black Tornado senior group that is one of the biggest in recent memory, one also featuring Pa’oa Payne-Kaeo, Makayla Miller, Emelia Thiring and Jordan Sandler. Following the spring 2021 season, which was played against all local teams and without spectators due to COVID-19, that rising senior class looked forward to a normal fall season, albeit with inherent pressure and expectations of following in the footsteps of the class above them. On Saturday, they’ll get one of their biggest tests to date at the 36th annual Rogue Valley Classic, hosted at North Medford High, where 16 teams from Oregon and California will compete for the title the Black Tornado won in 2019, the most recent year the tournament was played.

For North Medford to continue progressing this weekend and beyond, it will build on the team’s offensive foundation centered around Yechout and Aukusitino. In the team’s last six matches, each have recorded a combined 43 kills, averaging 7.2 per contest. Yechout is averaging 5.2 digs, while Aukusitino is averaging 3.2 digs and 1.7 aces.

Yechout, who swung up to varsity as a freshman before earning a full-time spot as a sophomore, had a breakout junior campaign in which she was named to the Southern Oregon Conference first team, alongside four senior teammates who also earned spots on the SOC teams. With those accolades, it was natural to assume the team would expect a lot of Yechout for her senior year.

“I definitely felt like it was hard and having that as my name,” Yechout said. “But I feel like having all the other seniors has really lifted a load off of my shoulders and just made us all communicate and play the best that we can, because that’s all that really matters.”

Meanwhile, Aukusitino made the Black Tornado varsity squad as a freshman, the only one on the roster. And, she did it after attending Sacred Heart Catholic School, graduating from an eighth grade class of 20 students then moving on to a 6A school of 500 in her freshman class.

“That was insane,” Aukusitino said. “It was definitely a culture shock for me. And I think the experience, meeting new people, meeting the girls, they were my first family and they’re my family throughout my whole high school years, even outside of volleyball.”

Their 2019 season as sophomores was the last full-time season they had before the pandemic. When Elbert took over the team in 2020, coaching almost nonstop while their schedule was up in the air, he sought to develop a culture of being together and supporting each other, almost like a family.

“Families have different members and different roles, so how do we all fit together?” Elbert said after a recent practice. “And how do we bring out each other’s strengths?”

When Elbert explained this, he was referring to the team and program as a whole, but the same questions can be applied to Yechout and Aukusitino, both of whom seem to understand their dynamic within the context of the team.

“I feel like we have the same amount of drive to want to win,” Yechout said, “so it really helps when we both get on the court and one of us is focus and one of us is energy — it just complements each other really well.”

“I believe that Audrey and I, we definitely balance each other out, skill level and energy level as well,” Aukusitino said. “I’m very competitive, so I think that’s why I’m very collected, and a lot of our girls are, too. Our seniors and varsity team in general, we’re very collected and we’re very calm. There’s definitely two ways of showing our competitiveness in a sort of way.”

Elbert said both players were steady last weekend at the South Eugene Tournament, which included a battle against McNary, the No. 4-ranked 6A team in the state. Though North ultimately came up short in a 2-0 defeat, the team came away feeling encouraged by how hard they pushed.

“This whole team competes,” Elbert said. “They compete hard, they believe in each other. As a group it’s hard to separate just those two … because everyone brings a piece to the table.”

It just so happens that McNary will be one of the teams in attendance at the Rogue Valley Classic, and should the bracket break a certain way, North may get a chance at a rematch. The field will also feature central Oregon teams Bend (currently ranked No. 1 in 6A), Crook County and Mountain View, local teams South Medford, Grants Pass, Crater, Ashland, Eagle Point, Phoenix and Cascade Christian, and two teams from Redding, California, Shasta and Foothill.

North’s win in the 2019 championship over Ridgeview was a proud moment for the Black Tornado as they avenged a loss to the same Ridgeview team in the 2018 championship.

“We felt like we were the team that deserved to win that,” Yechout said, “because we put so much heart and effort into playing that last championship game that I knew we would win it.”

Now as seniors, North has plenty of incentive to repeat — two years later.

“We’re ready to compete and play ball,” Aukusitino said.

Pool play is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. followed by bracket play at 1 p.m.

Reach Will Denner at 541-776-4479 or wdenner@mailtribune.com

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford senior volleyball players Audrey Yechout (top) and Jackie Aukusitino.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford senior volleyball players Audrey Yechout (left) and Jackie Aukusitino.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth's Aubrey Yechout hits the ball past Westview's Niyati Puranik during the 1st set.