North Medford’s Taylor Schmidt fires a pitch during a state-playoff game on Friday. - Denise Baratta

Black Tornado races into semis

It was a play that Jenna Stevens has made thousands of times, yet never in a situation quite like this one.

On a scorching day when no fielding plays proved routine, the shortstop cradled the ball in her mitt, stood erect and fired across the dirt infield. When the ball landed securely in the glove of teammate Tejay Schmidt, Stevens leaped into the air and let out a sigh equal parts joy and relief.

Stevens' clutch defensive play closed the door on a late Oregon City rally and lifted the North Medford softball team into the state semifinals for the first time since its championship season of 2002. The Black Tornado won its sixth straight game, holding on for a 2-1 victory in the Class 6A quarterfinals at North Medford High on Friday.

"There's never a time when I don't want the ball," said Stevens, who two innings earlier had mishandled a seemingly innocent ground ball. "Defense is definitely my favorite part of the game, so I love being out there in those kinds of situations."

North Medford (24-5) will visit Pacific Conference champion McMinnville (25-4) in the 6A semifinals on Tuesday. McMinnville defeated Clackamas 4-0 on Friday. Sunset (23-6) and South Salem (23-6) will meet in the other semifinal.

"It's not like we expected to be here, necessarily," North Medford coach Mike Mayben said. "But we believed we could get here. To get this far, you've got to be a little bit lucky and a lot of good."

Oregon City (20-6) had rallied late to win both of its playoff contests, so when the Pioneers scored once in the sixth to close the margin to 2-1 and then put the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the seventh, there was ample reason to question the outcome.

"It was a little bit scary," Stevens admitted. "But we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we know we can get it done when we need to."

"We tend to put a little bit of pressure on ourselves," she added, "but we needed that situation because the rest of the playoffs could be like this and we need the experience of having tight ballgames in the late innings."

It was just the second one-run victory for the Tornado this season.

"These kids have so much heart," Mayben said. "They believe in themselves, but more than that, they've worked really hard. They've played all summer together. They believe in each other. Those things make this a special group and make this run special."

Southwest Conference player of the year Taylor Schmidt (23-5) was not as dominant as she has been at other times this season, allowing eight hits and striking out four. But she came up large at the biggest moments, stranding 11 Pioneer runners, including five in the final three innings.

Aided by a trio of Tornado errors, Oregon City had baserunners in six of the seven innings. But Schmidt pitched out of bases-loaded jams in the first and third innings to keep the game scoreless.

"She's a competitor," Mayben said of Schmidt. "She is the heart of the team in the circle and that means a lot. Even when she's on an off day, her teammates aren't going to see it and she's going to compete."

The Black Tornado got its only runs in the fifth thanks to two of Oregon City's four errors. Stevens started the rally with a one-out single to right field. McKenna Storey laid down a nearly perfect drag bunt, which Oregon City pitcher McKenzie Marshall fielded but hurried her throw. It was questionable whether the speedy Storey would have beaten a good throw, but Marshall's toss was high and off the glove of Kate Schimmel into foul territory. Stevens saw the ball get away and made a mad dash for home, breaking the scoreless tie, while Storey raced all the way to third.

"I was just trying to get on base and move her over," Storey said. "The first baseman was pretty far back, so I figured I'd drop one down and move her over.

"We have a lot of really fast girls and a lot of other girls who can slap and bunt. We use that to our advantage as much as we can."

Storey scored what proved to be the winning run two batters later when Pioneer shortstop Taylor Belmont bobbled a grounder by Amanda Wolfe and failed to record the third out of the inning.

Oregon City closed the gap in the sixth on a double by Belmont and singles by Marshall and Haley Raburn. But Taylor Schmidt got Victoria Hubbard to hit a weak pop-up for the final out.

The Pioneers mounted one final threat in the seventh on singles by Rachel Roberts and Belmont. But with the tying run just 60 feet away, Schmidt got Regan Drake to ground out to Stevens to end the contest.

"We've come a long way since last year and it wasn't like we have a bunch of new girls," Stevens said. "We feel like we deserve this, because we worked really hard."

Oregon City 000 001 0 — 1 8 4

North Medford 000 020 x — 2 6 3

Marshall and Strong; Ta. Schmidt and Wolfe. W — Ta. Schmidt (23-5). L — Marshall (20-6). 2B — OC: Belmont.

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