The Del Norte All Stars ran the table through the first three days of the 9–11 Oregon Little League State Softball Tournament at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford and was the last undefeated team remaining in the tournament. The Warriors couldn’t pull out a win in the championship round on Monday, however, and finished as the Oregon state runner up to Grant County.

Del Norte opened the tournament with a 12-2 win in four innings over Beaumont on Friday and followed that up with a 15-5 win in five innings against Lakeview on Saturday. That set up what turned out to be an epic three-game series against Grant County between the top two 9–11-year-olds teams in Oregon.

Del Norte pulled out a late comeback for a 6-4 win when the last two undefeated teams met on Sunday, but Grant County came back with a 22-1 win over Willow Creek that afternoon to get into the championship round.

Grant County got off to a hot start in the first game on Monday and ended up with a 12-3 win to force a winner-take-all championship game. Del Norte managed to stay close throughout the second contest on Monday, but Grant County held on in the end for a 6-4 win.

“It means a lot to them,” said Del Norte head coach Beau Smith. “We were two games and done last year. So to come back and take second place from a team like that is amazing. That team is from John Day, Oregon. They are used to playing in the heat — we are not. I think we held our own against them in triple digit heat and smoke.”

Although the Warriors ended up one win short of a state championship, Smith noted that it was an incredible improvement from last year, when mostly the same girls went 0-2 in the 2017 8–10 Oregon State Tournament. The 2017 tournament started with a 9-0 loss to the same Grant County team, followed by an 11-1 loss to Crook County.

“It obviously feels a lot different winning than losing. We have the same girls (as last year) — it’s just a different attitude,” Smith said. “They got better in every aspect of the game. We grew mentally, physically, our fielding was spot on and our hitting was dialed in. We look like a ball club. We look like a team that has been playing together just as long as (Grant County) has, but we haven’t. Our All Star team has played a total of five games together. That is something that we have to keep in mind. We have accomplished all this after just five games together.”

While Del Norte has five games under its belt — seven if you include the 2017 8–10 All Star team — Smith said Grant County has been playing together for several full seasons already.

“We were playing against a team that plays together all year long — they are an ASA team that plays together when they are not playing little league,” Smith said. “Not only did we hang with them, we beat them once. I would say we deserved and earned to be there and be in that position. They took us lightly in that first game, but they didn’t take us lightly after that — I will tell you that.”

In fact, Smith said he expected everyone will have an eye out for Del Norte again in 2019. As a 9–11 All Star team, every girl on the squad this year will still be eligible to compete on a 10–12 All Star team next season.

“We will definitely be known throughout,” Smith said. “They are going to know who we are next year when we pull into town. That is for sure.”

Throughout the weekend, Smith’s constant message to the team was, “Play every inning and every at bat like we are behind.”

After every game, win or lose, Smith thought his teams did just that.

“I want them to play like they are behind in points, and everything rides on the next batter — for each and every batter,” Smith explained.

Although Del Norte never really trailed in the tournament until Sunday, Smith was impressed with how focused the team played with a lead. That focus never seemed to waiver when the Warriors fell behind either.

After going 3-2 at the Oregon State Tournament, Smith said the highlight of it all was watching some of the girls really step into leadership roles for the first time ever.

“A couple of the older girls really took charge, and they did it because they wanted to,” Smith said.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing lots of Del Norte supporters on the sidelines in Medford.

“They knew that the community had their back, win or lose. That was a really important part of everything,” Smith said. “I just want to thank the community for all of the support. The community really supported us, and these girls know it.”

Del Norte 15, Lakeview 5

Del Norte took a quick lead in the Oregon State Tournament when McKenna Curtis smacked a double and Khloe Smith brought her home with a bunt single for a 1-0 first-inning lead. Smith made the score 2-0 after taking home plate on a walk by Ava O’Reilley, and Reece White brought O’Reilley home with an RBI single two batters later for a 3-0 lead.

“When you get out to a lead, the other team immediately feels like they are behind and they aren’t going to get it back,” Smith said. “So it is a spirit crusher.”

Lakeview managed to rally with two runs in each of its next two at bats, however, and the 9–11 Del Norte All Stars found themselves trailing for the first time all tournament at 4-3.

Smith said he didn’t think the first adversity of the tournament phased his squad.

“We are playing every inning and every at bat like we are behind. These girls know what it means to be a Warrior,” he said. “I told the girls to bat like we were behind, and they did.”

Del Norte responded immediately.

Smith started off the inning with a walk, but then Del Norte’s bats went wild. O’Reilley smacked a single, followed by a bunt single by Tsinte Steinruck. Chaney Pease knocked another single two batters later, and Audrey Phillips wrapped up the five-run inning with another RBI single to put Del Norte back ahead 8-4.

Del Norte and Lakeview traded runs in the bottom of the fourth and top of the fifth before the Warriors offense exploded again to secure the win by 10-run rule. The Warriors batted all the way through their lineup, using four hits and four walks to power a six-run inning to push the final score to 15-5.

“We got the girls swinging the bat and ready to hit. We were laying down some nice bunts and we proved that we can play small ball too,” Smith said, after his team hit three home runs in their first game on Friday. “We worked on a lot of bunting and a lot of small ball during practice — and we had a month and a half to practice.”

Del Norte 6, Grant County 4

Even though Del Norte and Grant County started the tournament on opposite sides of the bracket, the Warriors were hoping for a rematch against the Wildfire.

Grant County provided a rough welcome to the Oregon State Tournament for the Del Norte 8–10 All Star Softball team last year, beating Del Norte 9-0. Almost all of those players were on the 9–11 Del Norte All Stars this season.

“This is the team that beat us at this tournament last year,” Smith said. “They knew, and they wanted (to win) bad.”

Although the Warriors were fired up to take on the Wildfire in the meeting between the tournament’s last two undefeated teams on Sunday, it was Grant County that struck first in the game.

The Wildfire pushed a pair of runs across the plate with a two-out rally in the first inning to grab an early lead. Del Norte managed to get one of those runs back when Curtis was able to come home on an error by the Grant County right fielder.

Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the third inning, Del Norte once again closed the gap. Madison Calleja started the inning with a single, and Curtis got back on base after being hit by a pitch. Calleja managed to beat the throw home on a ground ball by Lauren Stutes to cut the lead to 3-2, and O’Reilley tied the game up at 3-3 two batters later with an RBI groundout.

Grant County once again stepped in front in the top of the fourth inning with another run for a 4-3 lead. The Wildfire looked poised to score more, with runners on first and third with just one out, but pitcher Chaney Pease caught a hard line drive from the very next batter and managed to pick off the runner before they could return to third base for an inning ending double play.

After a scoreless at bat by each team, Del Norte grabbed its first lead of the game with a three-run fifth inning.

“Our hitting came alive in the fifth — wow,” Smith said. “They just went to work. They know what to do, and they went out and did it.”

Smith started the inning by taking advantage of a Grant County error and reaching first base safely with one out. Shay Nolan then knocked a bunt for a single to put two runners on.

With O’Reilley at the plate, Smith drew a pickoff attempt at third base by the Grant County catcher, but the throw missed high and left and sailed into the outfield. Smith immediately came home to tie the game, and Nolan managed to come in to score from second to put Del Norte ahead 5-4. O’Reilley followed up that action with a single, and gave the Warriors an insurance run by coming around to score on an RBI single by Carlee Harper.

“This was a pitchers’ game and our pitchers prevailed. I threw my heat in the first two innings, I figured I would fight fire with fire, so we set the tone with McKenna (Curtis) and she did a great job. She gave us two good innings and then we finished it up with Chaney (Pease). It was a pitcher’s game.”

Pease handed Grant County a walk to lead off the sixth inning, but like she did in the fourth inning, the Warrior pitcher caught another hard line drive up the middle from the next batter and threw the ball to first base for the second double play of the game.

“They know where to go with the ball,” Smith said of the pair of double plays. “They played like they practiced. They were 100 percent ready for this game.”

Calleja then secured the victory by squeezing a fly ball to right field in the next at bat.

Championship Monday

The final day of the 9–11 Oregon State Softball Tournament just didn’t go Del Norte’s way. Playing in 100 degree heat and in smoky conditions, ended up falling 12-3 in the first game and 6-4 in the second against Grant County — nicknamed the Wildfire.

Although the Warriors ended up short in the championship game, Smith said it was hard to be anything but impressed after the trip to Medford.

“We battled. The girls laid it all out there on the field. They exceeded my expectations two days ago,” Smith said. “They performed and they did everything that they could do. They gave 100 percent, so I didn’t care. It was all about having fun.”

Grant County came out red hot in the first game of the day, putting up five runs in the first inning after only scoring four runs in six innings against the Warriors the day before. Del Norte continued to battle, but just couldn’t close the gap with the Wildfire.

“We just tried coming back, but we just didn’t have enough time to reel them back in,” Smith said.

The second game was much closer, staying within a couple runs for all six innings. Grant County once again jumped ahead with a run in the first inning, but Del Norte tied up the game with a run of its own in the second.

Trailing 6-4 in the fifth inning, Del Norte had an opportunity to tie the game up with two runners on base and just one out, but Grant County was able to buckle down and end the threat to keep itself in line for the state title.

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .

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