Having gone to battle with one of the youngest teams in Southern Oregon Hybrid baseball, North Medford finally has a feeling that it's ready to contend again for the conference title.
Given the results of a preseason coaches' poll, the Black Tornado's peers seem to agree.
With eight returning starters and another key pickup in the offseason, North Medford was a unanimous selection to finish first in what's expected to be a tight race for SOH supremacy.
"We're a lot more solid than last year," said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe, whose team went 17-9 and finished third in the conference last year. "We have a little more athleticism throughout our lineup and a little better team speed. This year we have a greater nucleus of kids with experience at the varsity level and that should help us be more consistent."
The Black Tornado secured four first-place votes for 16 points overall, although Crater (12) and Roseburg (11) were not that far off in voting. Grants Pass finished fourth with six points, one ahead of South Medford.
North Medford last earned a conference title in 2009 when it shared the crown with Roseburg. The Indians have been the outright conference champions over the past three years and, given the SOH's early nonleague success, Roseburg head coach Troy Thompson said this year's winner will have to overcome a number of obstacles along their path.
Through Wednesday, the SOH teams were a combined 13-2, with both losses to state title contender Sheldon. The conference season doesn't begin until April 9.
"I can't help but think our league is going to once again be very competitive and very strong," said Thompson. "If you look at everybody's preseason records right now, it's been impressive to me. I think the league will be stronger than it has in the past as a whole."
That seemed to be the consensus among the coaches, with North Medford given the nod as favorite but only slightly over the Comets and Indians, and no one believing that Grants Pass or South Medford can be overlooked.
"Everybody has a couple good guys that can pitch," said Wolfe, "and if you pitch instead of throw and command the zone, you're going to shut down teams, I don't care how good you're able to hit the ball."
North Medford's balance among its returning pitchers and hitters helped turn the tide in its favor for the voting, as well as its ability to reach the Northwest Regionals during last summer's American Legion A season.
Leading the charge are all-conference returners Micah Brown (first team), Taylor Raff (second team), Jared Evans (second team) and honorable mention selections Colton Westfall, Austin Zavala and Hayden Evans.
Throw in returning starters Christian Gillis and David Crofton, whose knee injury during football cut into his spring season, as well as sophomore Josh Berman, who saw varsity action last year at South Medford, and the Black Tornado appears to have most of its bases covered.
"This group has played more games together and has a good understanding of what our roles are and what we're supposed to do and how to play with each other," said Wolfe.
"I think we have enough talent to compete but we're going to have to play well within ourselves and excel past what we think we can do," added the 19th-year head coach. "We've done that before. It just might take us a bit to get there and find the pieces to work our way through it."
Raff's stability and leadership at shortstop and in the leadoff spot is instrumental to North's progress, along with a pitching rotation that is topped by the sophomore Westfall and includes Crofton, Berman, Brown, Brett Pearson and left-handers Gillis and Hayden Evans.
"We feel we can go six or seven deep and be able to compete," said Wolfe. "Colton's our No. 1 coming back and he's just re-establishing himself for a good sophomore season and I expect him to continue that."
Entering last year's Northwest Regionals, Raff paced North Medford with a .424 batting average, 71 runs scored and 29 extra-base hits, while Brown (.397) and Jared Evans (.380) continued their tear at the plate. Of particular importance, however, was the development by Zavala as a key offensive threat (.389) to complement Crofton's 54 RBIs.
Crater is right there in amount of returning starters (seven) but not as many varsity innings logged on the mound. Junior standouts Ty Fox, Blake Fahndrich and Tyler Aplin were each first-team all-SOH selections a year ago and power a potent Comet lineup that is bolstered by the return of honorable mention shortstop Evan Erskine, Taylor Pardee and Anthony Martin.
"One through nine our lineup is tough," said Crater head coach Jay Campbell. "We have a lot of tough outs and I think we're going to be able to apply some pressure to teams with our ability to swing the bat and play small-ball when needed."
Nolan Bastendorff heads a pitching rotation that returns Fox and Fahndrich, although all three pitched in secondary roles last season.
"I feel confident in our pitching staff," said Campbell. "They've obviously had a year to mature and put the time in during the offseason and hopefully we'll see the benefits of that this spring."
Like North Medford, Crater enjoyed considerable success over the summer by claiming the Area 4 championship and finishing 44-6 after a championship game loss to the Mavericks in the state tournament.
Roseburg has the least familiar faces among the title contenders with only four returning starters, but the Indians always seem to reload with players who simply bide their time until called upon. Senior shortstop Kody Matthews anchors the defense, while switch-hitting sophomore David Irvine will move to his more natural catcher position and hopes to improve on his third-team all-state debut. Both were first-team all-SOH players a year ago.
The Indians relied heavily, and rightfully so, on pitchers Josh Graham and Jared Priestley the last three years but both have moved on to the University of Oregon and Thompson has a solid corps of replacements in right-handers Brady Fuller, Brady Haskett, Cody Watkins, Cody Walker and Cody Bassett.
"We're not going to replace players we've had but this group will find their own way with what they have and I think it's an exciting group," said Thompson.
Grants Pass returns senior pitchers Andrew Polder and Chris Ingledue and second-team all-conference infielder Justin Spinner, who takes over at shortstop this season. Beyond returners Chris Leenknecht, Chace VanEss and Cameron Mathews, the bulk of the Cavemen are underclassmen and their development will be key to the team's success.
At South Medford, seniors Pat Alexander and Joe Cooney join juniors Nate Walker and Eric Wallan in leading a Panther team that will be without the services of senior Trevor Meyer for three weeks while he's on an exchange trip to Alba, Italy. South has also been playing this week without Wallan, who cut off the tip of his left thumb just above the fingernail during culinary arts class on Monday. Wallan hopes to return next week.
Juniors Jimmy Sporer, Caleb Newman, Brandon Lupton and Austin White join senior Forrest Pierson and freshman Brady Breeze as key first-year starters for the Panthers.
"Our approach needs to improve in terms of consistency and we've got to stay healthy," said South Medford head coach Ray Smith. "It's something that's bit us a little in the past where we've lost key guys here and there and didn't recover like I'd like to see."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry