When it comes to postseason pressure, North Medford senior pitcher Rylan Austin first puts her trust in her defense, then her rocket right arm.
Both proved up to the challenge Wednesday.
Austin wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam when the game was still up for grabs in the top of the third and got plenty of run support the rest of the way as the Black Tornado rode the ace’s two-hit shutout to an 8-0 victory in the second round of the Class 6A softball state playoffs Wednesday.
In a game that began at North Medford High, was delayed two hours by lightning and completed at U.S. Cellular Community Park, the thrd-seeded Tornado used a five-run sixth to pull away and secure a quarterfinal date with 11th-seeded Tigard on Friday at North.
Two days after a cruise-control 14-4 victory over overmatched Reynolds, Austin and the Tornado were confronted with a playoff curveball courtesy of mother nature and the familiar Irish when a lightning strike that drew “oohs” from the crowd only four pitches into the second inning. The mandatory 30-minute delay was stretched out by a steady rainfall which eventually forced a venue switch to the weather-proof artificial turf confines of U.S. Cellular, whose stadium lights were turned on before the 7:09 p.m. restart.
Trailing 1-0, Sheldon was first to grab momentum after the change as Yesenia DeLarosa and Kelsi Sorensen hit back-to-back singles to load the bases for No. 2 hitter Rylee Valentine with one out.
Austin, who improved to 24-3, had a plan.
“We talked about getting my ball low, and all I wanted to do was let (Valentine) hit it because I knew my defense would make every single play,” Austin said.
She got Valentine to chop a 2-2 pitch to the left side, where third baseman Kyleigh Lopez fielded the two-hopper cleanly and gunned home for a fielder’s choice groundout that kept Sheldon off the scoreboard. Next, Jordan Henderson worked the count full before Austin blew her away with an up-and-out rise ball. It was a microcosm of the game, as Austin owned Sheldon’s top four batters, who were a combined 1-for-12 with five strikeouts.
“You can’t say enough about Rylan,” North coach Chris Campbell said of his star pitcher. “That kid worked her tail off in the offseason, all through the season. She’s just going to give you 110 percent every time and she’s not going to let us get in a bad situation. She’s gonna come in, dial it in and go throw her best pitch at that time.”
North Medford (24-4) turned the momentum into offense shortly thereafter with a little help from the Irish (21-8), who finished third behind the league-champion Black Tornado and runner-up Grants Pass in the Southwest Conference standings.
Sheldon pitcher Camille Leach started the rally herself by plunking Lopez, North’s No. 9 batter, and two pitches later Lauren Barry reached on a throwing error after laying down a sacrifice bunt. Next, Alex Barry lifted a 1-2 pitch to center plenty deep enough to score Lopez from third, and Lauren Barry ended up scoring two batters later on another Irish throwing error to make it 3-0.
Already in fantastic position for the Round of 16 win, North delivered the death knell in the bottom of the sixth. Junior center fielder Kylie Baker dealt the heaviest blow, punching a hard grounder up the middle against a drawn-in infield with the bases loaded to drive in two and make it 5-0. Lopez’s squeeze bunt made it 6-0, an error led to the seventh run and a single by Alex Barry completed the scoring.
“All I was thinking was that I needed to be aggressive because she had gotten to me before,” said Baker, who struck out in the second and had a sacrifice bunt in the fourth. “I knew I needed to get up there and do what I needed to do. ... I was just trying to get one that I could drive. It was kind of outside a little bit so I just drove it up the middle.”
North Medford scored what turned out to be the only run it would need in the bottom of the first, when junior catcher Chelby Smalley, who finished 2-for-3, singled through the left side to drive in Alex Barry, who reached on a fielding error.
Austin had her best stuff before the lightning strike. She retired the first six Irish batters in order, including a blink-and-you-missed-it three-pitch second inning. She said she did all she could to stay warm during the delay, but the time off plus the wet conditions — a steady rain fell for about an hour at U.S. Cellular — seemed to affect her sharpness, at least initially.
“We came here and all my balls were up,” she said, “but I think I got a little nervous again knowing that it was still a tight game, so I needed to settle down. And Dan (Smalley), my pitching coach, really helped with that.”
Smalley’s advice must have been good because Austin regained her form in the fourth and dominated Sheldon thereafter. Counting the third-inning escape, she retired the last 13 batters she faced in order with six strikeouts. Austin finished with eight strikeouts and one walk.
“(Austin’s) just incredible, she’s outstanding,” Sheldon coach Mike Faulconer said. “I’m glad she’s a senior.”
Leach and Neuman. Austin and Smalley. W — Austin (24-3). L — Leach.
Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org