by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Jesuit senior softball standouts Emily Allen enjoyed and all-league season for the young Crusaders who took third in Metro this season.

Many talented softball teams have ventured into North Medford’s house of horrors in the last five years.

Few and far between have come out triumphant with Jesuit being the latest up-and-coming squad to get double-crossed by the Black Tornado’s multitude of dialed-in hitters and spades of pitching depth.

Struggling to get much of anything going early, the Crusaders fell behind too soon in the contest and couldn’t catch the defending state champs in a second round, 11-1, defeat on May 28.

Jesuit got the first two outs of the first inning, but the Black Tornado’s heart of the batting order answered with three straight scores. Then, in the second inning, lighting struck twice as the Crusaders recorded the first two outs of the stanza, only to give up four consecutive runs and dig themselves a 7-0 deficit.

“It’s tough to come back from that, especially in Medford,” said head coach Jim Speciale. “We went down there a little scared. I don’t know why we were scared. We’ve been in games like that, but we were just a little nervous. I liked how we never quit during the season. The game’s not over until the seventh inning, and that’s something we try to instill.”

Playing the two-time state champs is tough enough, but factor in the five-hour drive, the break from the Crusaders’ normal game-day routine and the enthusiastic Black Tornado crowd that’s wholehearted in its support of athletics, and it’s easy to see why Jesuit faltered.

“The atmosphere is wild,” said Speciale. “It’s a small-town feel that packs the house. It’s an atmosphere you have to love playing in if you’re a ballplayer. We didn’t really play our best ball, but we still had a pretty successful season getting to the sweet 16 (of the playoffs). There are a lot of teams at home, and we were still playing, so that was nice.”

Playing the best

Indeed, Jesuit progressed from last year to this season, moving from the first round to second round following a fierce, extra-inning win over Sprague to get its crack at North Medford. The goal for the Crusaders’ program since

Speciale took over the program 18 years ago has always been placing in Metro’s top four. Jesuit’s continually made the postseason “the old-fashioned way” as Speciale said, not relying on the OSAA’s “play-in” games to clinch a playoff bid.

This season was no different, as the Crusaders finished third in Metro and were a regular season win over Westview away from having the tiebreaker on the eventual champion Wildcats.

Senior pitcher Hailey Malin and infielder Kelsey Downey were first-team, all-Metro selections. Senior second baseman Ali Schultheis was a second-team, all-league pick, and fellow senior first baseman Emily Allen earned honorable mention honors.

“We’ve always competed to the best of our ability,” said Speciale. “We wanted to make the playoffs the right way. We knew we were in that North Medford bracket. You have to play the best teams anyways, and we just happened to draw them in the second round.”

Speciale said the Crusaders’ sophomore class is “excellent” with pillars such as sophomore all-league catcher

by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Jesuit outfielder McKenna Holmes is one the young Crusaders coming back next season with hopes of rising up the Metro rnnks.

Emily Preble and infielder Victorya Stallworth to build upon.

Junior starting outfielders Alicia Taylor (first-team, all-Metro) and McKenna Holmes (honorable mention all-Metro) both had strong seasons defensively and at the plate. Each is coming back next season as well. Emma Gordon and Jaclyn Flood started as freshmen this season, and Speciale said there will be “four or five incoming freshmen who will really help too.”

“As a coaching staff, we’re excited about the youth of our program,” said Speciale.

Behind the dish

Speciale believes Preble will be the team’s unquestioned leader next year behind the dish. The right-handed sophomore tried to take the leadership reins this season, but found some resistance in the upper ranks of Jesuit’s pecking order. Next year, Speciale said, that won’t be a problem.

“She’s not going to worry about what anybody says,” said Speciale. “She’s going to be the focus point of our team next year. I think Preble and (Sprague’s Jessie Isham) are probably the best two catchers in the state. Preble is really going to show people even more of her game next year as a junior.”

Despite only having one year of varsity experience, Preble seemed to have her finger on the Crusaders’ pulse. She knew where Jesuit’s strengths lied, what needed to be improved and how Jesuit could be effective in Metro. A 4.0 student at Jesuit, who processes the game quickly and cerebrally, Preble plays softball year-round, according to Speciale, going to catching clinics across the Portland area and meeting with a hitting instructor to fine-tune her swing.

“She works at her game and you have to do that to be successful,” said Speciale of Preble. “You can’t just pick up a bat and think you’re going to be great.”

by: TIMES FILE PHOTO - Ali Schultheis enjoyed an all-league season for the young Crusaders who took third in Metro this season.

When Preble and her Crusader teammates assemble next winter for preseason workouts, they’ll have a the Black Tornado badge of honor on their sleeves and a wealth of knowledge of what it takes to be a great team that plays well into June. Every team ends its season on a loss sans the state champs, Speciale noted. But, the seasoned head coach told his squad to soak in the sobering feeling of defeat and use it to try to make the next jump from the second round tyros into state contenders.

“To win a state championship, you have to get lucky,” said Speciale. “Everything has to line up well for you. We told the girls to work hard in the offseason and get ready to go for next year. As a team, we have to be more aggressive and believe in ourselves that we can do the job.”

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