The roster turnover has been huge in each of Nate Mayben's seasons as manager of the Medford Mustangs but there's definitely more sense of continuity with his American Legion AAA squad this year than in the past.
Mayben had to introduce 10 newcomers to the roster during his first year at the helm in 2011 and that total jumped up to 12 last year. This year's squad includes nine fresh faces but does boast a total of eight players with experience as a Mustang to ease the transition.
WHO: American Legion AAA baseball team for players age 19 and under from the high school areas in Medford, Phoenix, Ashland and Yreka, Calif.
"It's another young one," Mayben said of his third summer team. "It feels like déja vu all over again. But the good thing is we have a good group of guys who went through this with us last year. I would hope going into this year our guys are more ready for playing nine-inning games in the heat and facing good competition day in and day out like we do."
While the faces may change, the outlook never does for a proud Mustang tradition that boasts 11 state championships as well as three trips to the American Legion World Series since 1992. Even with the turnover and fielding such a young squad in recent history, the Mustangs have advanced to the state championship final in each of the past seven seasons.
"Our goal with the Mustangs is always to put ourselves in position to win a state championship, no matter who we've got," said Mayben, who was part of the 1997 Medford team that finished second in the nation. "That just comes from the tradition of all the guys that have come before us. I think we'll compete very well and at a high level again and we'll just see where that takes us. We've got a lot of games to go."
The Mustangs (1-2) play their home opener at 7 p.m. Monday against Klamath Falls in a nonleague encounter. Mayben said Klamath Falls isn't fielding an American Legion AAA squad this summer but his team was able to replace the Falcons on the schedule with a Senior Babe Ruth team that is guided by Pete Whisler.
With that, the Area 4 title race will be between the Mustangs, Grants Pass Nuggets, Roseburg Dr. Stewart's and defending state champion Eugene Challengers. Since Medford is the host of this year's state tournament, it receives an automatic bid to the postseason regardless of where it finishes in the Area 4 standings.
Medford went 38-12 in 2011 and lost in the state final to the Salem Withnell Dodgers, and was 30-22 last year with a title game loss to Eugene.
Leading the Mustangs' hopes this year are returners Charlie Walker, Jamie Flynn, Hayden Evans, Colton Westfall, Steen Fredrickson, Isaiah Luzny, Eric Wallan and Cody Hoff.
Walker is the leading hitter among the returners after hitting .372 from the leadoff spot with a team-best 18 doubles and 50 runs scored to go with 18 stolen bases. The 2012 North Medford High graduate spent this past season as a redshirt at Mt. Hood Community College and is the only Mustang with any collegiate experience.
"Charlie had a good summer for us last year and we expect him to do about the same this year," said Mayben. "We know he's going to start off slow because he hasn't seen much playing time lately but we're going to give him the at-bats he needs to get a rhythm going and I think he'll be fine. We expect him to deliver for us again."
The center fielder Walker also provided a boost to the pitching rotation last year, posting a 4-1 record and 3.04 ERA.
Evans hit .263 a year ago when he split time at first base and right field but will primarily pitch this summer for the Mustangs to supply the team another left-handed option to complement Luzny, who went 1-0 with a 3.82 ERA last summer but also plays right field.
Flynn was the team's ace a year ago and finished with a 5-3 record and 1.63 ERA in 55 innings. The Ashland right-hander will be a late addition to the lineup after he completes a 10-day contract run with the West Coast League's Medford Rogues.
"Jamie wanted to experience that and kinda get in with them to hopefully play there next summer," said Mayben. "I think it's going to be a good experience for him."
Westfall and Fredrickson each had breakout moments last year for the Mustangs and only expect to get better with more time on the mound. Each had just completed their freshman years of high school before being thrown into the mix in 2012, with Westfall posting a 5-2 record and 3.06 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 52 innings and Fredrickson going 1-1 with a 5.04 ERA.
With another high school season in the books, the juniors-to-be hopefully will be that much more seasoned for the summer rigors this time around.
"There's some young arms in there that we have," said Mayben, "but I think they're pretty good, too. We're excited about what we have pitching-wise. From what we've seen so far, our pitchers are throwing strikes and doing a good job. We've got guys who can really compete on the mound."
Hoff saw limited time on the mound last year but the Yreka High graduate will put his focus entirely on that role this summer to prepare himself for next season at Feather River Junior College. Primarily at shortstop a year ago, Hoff still managed to go 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA on the mound.
Fresh off his junior season at South Medford, Wallan will likely revise his utility role for the Mustangs this summer after gaining playing time at shortstop, third base, catcher and in the outfield.
Among the newcomers, Mayben may be the most excited about the catcher tandem of North Medford's Austin Zavala and Ashland's Carter Glick. The two backstops expect to split the season evenly, with no dropoff between the duo.
"I think as far as a one-two punch, they may be one of the best combinations defensively we've had in a long time," said Mayben. "I think our catchers are going to make a huge difference on this team because they're two quality guys who are really smart at calling games and can stop guys from advancing on the basepaths."
Mayben also noted the addition of David Crofton (first baseman/pitcher), Bryce Rogan (left fielder) and Eric Carlson (third baseman) as keys to his optimism this summer, along with the presence of middle infielders Taylor Raff (shortstop) and Micah Brown (second baseman).
"Being able to have a couple guys like (Raff and Brown) come in who have played together all spring is huge," said Mayben. "Especially with the uncertainty we had last year up the middle and the adjustments we had to make, it's really going to be nice to have that continuity for the summer."
Fredrickson expects to bounce around the diamond and play multiple positions like Wallan. Also in the mix will be newcomers Nate Walker of South Medford and Daniel Seus of St. Mary's.
Only Charlie Walker, Flynn and Evans are ineligible to return next season, making this a key building campaign for the Mustangs.
Medford and the Fairfield (Calif.) Expos traded 6-5 victories to open the season before Fairfield took the series with a 6-4 win on June 2. Even with that, Mayben said he saw a lot of positives from his squad.
"We outhit Fairfield all three games but left 31 guys on base," he said. "I really like the approach our guys take to the plate, they're an aggressive group yet they're pretty disciplined, too. We've just got to do a better job of hitting in clutch situations with runners in scoring position."