An unusual name was at the top of the OSAAtoday 6A softball coaches poll this week.
Sheldon, which has spent years toiling in the shadows of North Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg and South Medford in the powerful Southwest Conference, supplanted reigning champion Tualatin at No. 1.
For a team that has never even won a league title before, it’s heady stuff.
“It’s strange because we really feel like sort of an unknown,” Irish coach Mike Faulconer said. “We’re this team down south that most of the teams up north don’t know much about.
“We’re used to being under the radar, so it’s kind of weird being in a position where other teams look at us at their No. 1 choice. That’s pretty crazy for us. It’s nice to be recognized.”
With eight starters back from a team that went 21-8, Sheldon had designs on the Southwest title this season. The Irish (20-3, 12-1) have clinched at least a share of the conference title and can claim it outright with a one win in Saturday’s doubleheader at Roseburg (14-9, 9-4).
Along the way, they have taken two of three games from No. 2 Grants Pass (20-3, 10-3) and swept three games from perennial conference power North Medford (11-12, 4-9).
“North Medford was definitely our nemesis. We exorcised those demons,” said Faulconer, in his fifth season as the team’s coach. “This is uncharted territory for us. I thought we had this potential. Realizing potential is another thing. There is great leadership on this team.”
Sheldon has two fourth-year starters in catcher Emma Neuman and center fielder Anna Boyd and four juniors who are third-year starters in pitcher Camille Leach, first baseman Jordan Henderson, shortstop Kelsi Sorensen and third baseman Rylee Valentine.
The experience is paying off in a big way.
“Last year they knew they could beat teams like North Medford and Grants Pass, but when things started to not go their way, they kind of lost their confidence,” Faulconer said. “This year they go into every game believing they’re going to win.”
The Irish have shown resiliency. Trailing Westview 10-3 in a nonleague game April 11, they rallied for eight runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to win 11-10.
In the second game of a pivotal home doubleheader April 26 against Grants Pass, Neuman ripped a walk-off two-run homer to lift the Irish to a 4-3 win that enabled them to hold onto first place.
Neuman -- who has signed to play at Lindenwood University, an NAIA school in Illinois – is the heart of the team. She is batting .500 with five home runs and 26 RBIs.
“She is having an MVP-type season,” Faulconer said.
Henderson (.493, two home runs, 31 RBIs), Sorensen (.472, 30 RBIs) and senior Olivia Schmidt (.403, 22 RBIs) also are having productive seasons at the plate. Leach (14-2, 2.27 ERA, 108 innings, 92 hits, 128 strikeouts) has done a solid job in the circle despite being slowed by a groin injury and illness.
“She didn’t start getting her feet under her until recently,” Faulconer said. “It’s been a rough year, but she’s still been very effective and fought through everything. The best is yet to come.”
The Irish made it as far as the semifinals in 2008, but didn’t win another playoff game until last year, when they made the second round. Perhaps this year’s postseason run will reach the nearby University of Oregon, new site of the state finals.
“That would be a neat deal if we could make it that far,” Faulconer said. “Hopefully we get a shot to do that.”