With a sizable roster turnover from last year, the North Medford softball team was looking for a few new faces to step up this season and help the Black Tornado remain atop the Southwest Conference standings.
Enter Chelby Smalley last week, and what a week it was for the junior catcher.
Not only did Smalley come through with clutch game-winning hits for North Medford to open SWC play in each game of a doubleheader last Monday against Sheldon, she followed that up by going 4-for-4 with six RBIs the next day against South Eugene as North Medford improved to 8-2 overall and 3-0 in league play.
In all she was 8-for-10 with two triples, one double and 10 RBIs over three games.
“It was pretty exciting,” Smalley, 17, said of her grand week. “I was excited to have a good day hitting just for my team and, I guess, for myself. That felt good.”
It felt good for all involved as the No. 4 hitter showed her true mettle after a slow start to the season.
“She just really came through in some key moments,” said North Medford head coach Chris Campbell of the late-inning, go-ahead efforts over Sheldon. “That’s pretty tough to do for a kid that just hasn’t had a lot of varsity experience, but with what we saw through summer we knew what she could do and the kind of performer she was when put in those situations.”
With the effort, Smalley boosted her batting average to .500 (16-for-32) in her first true varsity season after serving in mostly a backup role last year on the Black Tornado’s Class 6A state championship squad. She had driven in a team-best 17 runs heading into Monday’s rescheduled twin bill against Willamette.
“After the (North Medford Invitational over) spring break, I was working hard to work on my hitting and working to get better,” said the 5-foot-7 standout. “Going into that first Sheldon game I felt really confident about how the week of practice went and I just went in with a mindset to hit the ball. I was aggressive on first pitches and I was ready and it worked.”
That same approach paid off for Smalley and all of her teammates in a 21-0 romp over South Eugene that saw North Medford pound out 22 hits last Tuesday.
“The good thing to see is it maintained when we went to South Eugene,” Campbell said of her hot streak. “She took that same mental approach and went up there with a purpose of hitting the ball hard and making them make plays, and that’s the kind of mental focus you have to have when you come to the plate.”
Smalley’s presence in the batting lineup stands to be a big key for North Medford moving forward, with returning starters Lauren Barry (sophomore), Alex Barry (senior) and Rylan Austin (senior) setting the tone at the top of the order. It’s a role Smalley has been looking forward to since last season.
“Last year with nine seniors, it’s hard to come in as a sophomore,” said Smalley. “But I still worked hard to do my best and I knew my role and I was just there to help cheer on the team and be there for support. I just kept working hard over the summer and offseason and knew that this was my year and I had to really step up, and I feel that me and a couple other girls are really stepping up as leaders.”
That seems to be the sense for Campbell as well. The Black Tornado continues to grow and he’s excited for the team’s potential moving forward.
“It’s coming around,” said Campbell. “It’s one of those maturation processes when you graduate nine senior girls. Many of these girls haven’t seen that speed and caliber of ball but they’re just starting to be able to compete at that next level and that’s what is huge for us now.”
And certainly with Smalley, the first-year head coach said he had no doubts given her history of success at the lower levels.
“She’s one of those girls that puts in a tremendous effort in the offseason,” said Campbell. “She’s in the weight room and all the time working and running. That girl will do whatever it takes and she knows what we expect of her. She has all the physical attributes and some of that mental refinement is what was needed, and she’s really stepped in and started focusing and doing what she needs to do and has really been big for us.”
Against Grants Pass at home Tuesday, the Black Tornado faces its toughest obstacle to date as each team looks to get a leg up on the other in the SWC title race. Almost halfway through the regular season, North Medford stands second in the 6A power rankings and the Cavers are fourth.
“Grants Pass is definitely a really good team and we’re really looking forward to that game,” said Smalley. “We’ve been really working hard and I have confidence in my team that we can really step up and have a good game.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry