GLADSTONE -- The way North Marion and Gladstone have battled in high-pressure, high-stakes baseball games this season, Huskies coach Randy Brack could use a little break from the Gladiators.
Especially after Tuesday night, when North Marion escaped Gladstone with a tension-packed 9-8 win in eight innings that assures the Huskies of at least a share of the 4A Tri-Valley Conference title.
In the aftermath of the teams’ third one-run game this season, Brack had a message for Gladstone coach Casey Webster.
“I told Web, ‘The only time I want to see you again is if it’s in Keizer, because I don’t want to see you sometime in the playoffs early,’” said Brack, referring to the site of the 4A final. “That’s three games that are hair-raisers.”
The No. 1 Huskies (22-2, 13-1) took two of those three games, though, and now own a one-game lead over the No. 5 Gladiators (15-9, 12-2) with one conference game remaining. North Marion can wrap up the Tri-Valley title outright by beating Corbett (0-21, 0-13) at home Thursday.
In the first two meetings April 22 and 23, North Marion won 1-0 and Gladstone won 3-2. The teams were prepared for a pitchers’ duel Tuesday with their aces – North Marion senior Griffin Henry and Gladstone senior Austin Conner – but instead it turned into a wild, back-and-forth affair.
“They give us a fight every single game,” Henry said. “We know what they’ve got, and we know they’re going to give it all they’ve got. So are we.”
North Marion senior Grant Henry, Griffin’s twin brother, also showed respect to the Gladiators, the reigning 4A champions.
“The only thing I can say about them is they’re one of the best teams we’re going to face,” Grant Henry said. “They’re one of the best teams in the state, no doubt. All their guys go hard. Luckily we got this one.”
Ultimately, the game was decided in the top of the eighth inning when Grant Henry drilled an RBI double to right-center field off sophomore reliever Mateo Burgos, scoring senior Nic Iliyn with the go-ahead run. Grant Henry, who threw three innings in relief of his brother, retired Gladstone in order in the bottom of the inning to seal the win.
“He picked me up big,” Griffin Henry said of his brother. “I knew he was going to do his job.”
Griffin Henry had the first big blow of the game, ripping a two-run homer to right field to stake North Marion to a 3-0 lead in the first inning.
Considering the low-scoring nature of the previous meetings, the Huskies appeared to be in good shape. But Gladstone countered with five runs on four hits in the bottom of the first to lead 5-3, getting RBI hits from senior Jake Gehrke, junior JP Peterson and senior Mitchell Kuhn and a run-scoring walk from Conner.
It was an uncharacteristic start for Griffin Henry, who entered the game 7-1 with a 0.69 ERA.
“People just don’t get to him, and they did a really good job,” Brack said. “He had a little control problem. He comes out in the first inning and gets the two-run homer, and I think he had so much adrenaline going that he went out in the first inning and was just overthrowing.”
Griffin Henry settled down, though, and when North Marion senior Jared Hauser hit a three-run triple in the fourth inning – and scored on a throwing error – the Huskies took control again with a 7-5 lead.
Gladstone quickly answered with two runs in the bottom of the fourth to tie 7-7. One run scored on a dropped third strike and the other came in on a groundout by Peterson.
North Marion pulled ahead 8-7 in the seventh when freshman Evan Holman hit an RBI double off senior reliever Wesley Haverland, but of course, the Gladiators were far from finished.
“I was sitting in the dugout between innings once thinking, ‘This is like two heavyweight fighters throwing haymakers at each other,’” Brack said.
In the bottom of the seventh, Gladstone loaded the bases with one out and scored the tying run when Grant Henry fielded a weak roller by senior Ben Hill and threw wildly toward home plate.
Tied 8-8, the Gladiators had a golden opportunity to win, but Grant Henry struck out Conner and got senior Matthew Lehrbach to ground out to end the threat.
“When I threw that ball away for them to tie it, I just got overwhelmed,” Grant Henry said. “I think I just panicked a little bit. I gave up the lead, and I couldn’t give up the tie now. I had to do whatever I could. Fortunately, I’ve been in those kind of situations before and the experience helps.”
North Marion finished with 13 hits, getting three from Grant Henry. Gladstone had nine hits, two apiece from Lehrbach and Peterson.
Despite the defeat, Webster said he liked how his team battled.
“They didn’t quit, that’s for sure,” Webster said. “They’ve got a lot of fight in them. I'm pretty proud of the way we played today, other than the fact that we probably could’ve executed a little better. We had a hard time getting a bunt down, and that cost us a few times.”
North Marion, which won the Oregon West Conference last year before moving to the Tri-Valley, anticipated having to go through Gladstone this season. And the Huskies were right.
“We knew these guys were going to be really solid. As it turned out, they were better than I thought they were,” Brack said. “We’ve pretty much played everybody that’s supposed to be good in the state, and they’re the best team we’ve seen at our level.”