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North Medford catcher Katie Williamson, left, and pitcher Chloe Hanson, of Eagle Point, touch gloves in the third inning of a recent game against the Southern Oregon Comets. - Jamie Lusch

Time of their lives

Mike Mayben doesn't send off the vibes that he's an acclaimed chef, but the Black Tornado softball coach certainly seems to have a recipe for success this summer on the 18-and-under circuit.

Mayben's ASA fastpitch summer program recently earned a berth to the 106-team national tournament — becoming the sole Oregon representative — thanks to a third-place showing at the state tourney and some welcomed community support.

The secret? Mayben insists it's all in the ingredients.

"To be honest, it's really easy to coach when you draw in kids who have the ability and want to compete," says the head coach. "They're not just there to enjoy their summer, they're there to compete."

What makes it that much more amazing is that Mayben's squad pulls girls from three different cities here in the Rogue Valley. Eight players come from Mayben's own North Medford High program, with three others from Grants Pass and another from Eagle Point.

And, to a player, the camaraderie and fellowship on the team is like no other.

"We all have a feeling that we are one whole team and it doesn't matter that we're separated by different schools or different cities," says third baseman Rashaun Sells, a senior-to-be at Grants Pass High. "This has to be one of my best summers I've played. It's really nice to have the confidence in the players and the coaches you have there and know that they're there for you no matter what."

Helping the chemistry is the fact that Sells and her Grants Pass teammates Ashley Bacon and Grace Marsh played with the Black Tornado and North players Kelsie Bartley, Hannah Leming, Katie Williamson and Jocilynn Ellis last summer.

"Since we played with them last summer, we all just feel like they're just part of our team, too," says Leming, who plays second base. "They are hysterical girls. They are so funny, they fit in perfect with us."

Throw in Eagle Point standout Chloe Hanson and four players who were part of the North Medford JV program in Michelle Draper, Marissa Gann, Keisha Williams and Maddie Gates, and the Black Tornado utilizes quite a unique cast of characters.

"We're just having a blast out there, everyone gets along so well," adds Leming. "I know on some elite teams you don't really see that because you don't really know each other and you're competing for a spot and there's all this drama, but that's not us."

Still, that chemistry has needed some time to develop. The Black Tornado wasn't exactly setting the summer circuit on fire early on, but gained momentum with a championship in the silver bracket at the Independence Day Invitational in Clackamas and carried that through a solid state tournament showing.

The Black Tornado's lone loss in five games at the Independence Day tourney came in its first game to the Northwest Buzz, which forced an immediate drop to the silver bracket. That same Salem-based club pinned the first state tourney loss on the Black Tornado in extra innings, then went on to beat the Oregon Slammers of Portland for the state title.

Neither the Buzz nor the Slammers, however, were interested in investing the time and money it takes to go to the national tournament, slated July 31-Aug. 7 in Normal, Ill., leaving the Black Tornado to swoop in and take the up-for-grabs spot. It'll be the first time in Mayben's six years that he has taken a team to the elite tourney.

"It's just a great opportunity for the kids," says Mayben. "There's definitely college exposure while they're there, which for our program is big because we can't afford to do week-long trips to big tournaments like they have in Colorado and other places during the summer."

It was a fairly known setup that the Buzz and Slammers likely weren't going to take the bid to nationals, and Mayben says there really wasn't much debate amongst his group when they earned the opportunity as the No. 3 team.

"Most of these kids were with us last year when we went to the Western Nationals down in Hayward, Calif.," adds the coach, "and we sorta knew coming into this year that if a berth was available, this group wanted to go."

The girls certainly played like they wanted the spot, not committing a single error through four games at the state tourney and pushing the elite Buzz squad to its limit.

"We all really wanted to go to Chicago so I think we all gave it the best we could," says Bartley, a starting pitcher and first baseman. "Each tournament we've been getting better and better and I think we're going to get to nationals and want to prove ourselves because we are the only team from Oregon."

Adds Leming: "Nationals is huge for us, especially since we're just a high school team. We're not a put-together elite team, we're just a bunch of girls from our high school mainly. It's a great opportunity but it's not like we're going in there with a bad team. We have a good team and we have a chance at winning a lot of games there, too."

The pitching of Bartley (9-6, 1.94 ERA), Hanson (5-1, 2.29) and Marsh (2.50 ERA in limited relief) has supplied a solid foundation for the squad. The trio have combined to strike out 141 and issue only 22 walks. All have been supported by an outstanding defense, anchored by Williamson at catcher and the play of Ellis and Leming up the middle and Bacon in center field.

"We have three quality pitchers with Kelsie, Chloe and Grace and we've been really solid defensively and that's how we stay in games because we don't have the one through nine lineup that some teams have," says Mayben.

It should be duly noted that two of North Medford's top players, Sierra Berryessa and Maryssa Becker, are playing for the 16U Blaze Bowmen this summer and will be heading to Tennessee soon for that national tourney. Those two could certainly boost the Black Tornado's chances, but the current cast has more than held its own.

"I'm really happy with the girls who have stepped up from the JV and played so well for us," adds Leming, who is hitting .364 with 17 runs and 10 RBIs through 21 games. "They've really proven that they can come up and play with us."

Sells leads the team in all categories with a .508 batting average, 18 runs scored, 15 RBIs and three home runs. Her seven doubles only trail Bartley by one, and she's posted a robust .794 slugging percentage.

Draper is hitting .424 in half as many at-bats as the regulars as part of an outfield rotation, while Ellis is hitting .375 with 14 stolen bases and Bartley .365. Marsh (.359) and Bacon (.322 with 12 RBIs) have also been instrumental, as well as EP's Hanson (.333), who called up Mayben prior to the summer slate to see if there was room for her.

"When you've got a kid that throws like Chloe does and is able to step right in and also play right field when she's not pitching, that's a no-brainer," adds Mayben.

The next step will certainly be one full of challenges, however, when you consider the elite competition and undeniable presence of college recruiters around the ballpark.

"It's a huge opportunity to have that many coaches there but I play summer ball to just have fun," says Leming. "School ball's a little more serious for me so I'm not even thinking about them at all. It'd be great to have them recognize me for what I can do, but I just want to go and win as many games as we can."

And as has been the case all season, that's going to take a group effort — similar to the one that's allowing the Black Tornado to afford the near $20,000 cost it requires to make the trip. Mayben and the girls were overflowing with heartfelt thank yous for those who have stepped up and continue to step up to make such an opportunity possible.

"We're just fortunate to be in a community where the community really supports kids," Mayben says of the giant fundraising venture undertaken by the team. "The community has really gotten behind these kids and helped them pay for an experience a lot of kids simply don't get to have. I can't say thank you enough, and I know the girls feel exactly the same way."

The Black Tornado will play another tune-up game at 6 tonight at North Medford High and practice Friday before leaving for Illinois on Saturday.

In other summer softball action, the Southern Oregon Comets — based out of Central Point and Tuesday's foe for the Tornado — will soon be heading to the ASA 16A Western Nationals in Kent, Wash.

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

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