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After a three-year drought, North Medford finally broke through for a conference baseball title last spring.
The question of whether the Black Tornado can make it two in a row earned an emphatic reaction from coaches in the Southern Oregon Hybrid, with North Medford selected as the unanimous favorite to claim the crown this spring.
As good as North Medford was last season, going 10-2 in the SOH and 22-7 overall, the Black Tornado appears even more equipped for success this season thanks to the return of almost all its starters and a healthy injection of talented newcomers.
"In very rare times do you come up and have a nucleus like we have," said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe, entering his 20th season at the helm. "We've been blessed like this before but also gone through years like everyone else has where it's not like this, but this year is a special group."
"We've been preaching that it's a short season and, in high school, your four years go by very fast," added Wolfe, "so we're going to try to take advantage of the fact that this group will be together for the last time and make the most of it."
The Black Tornado received four first-place votes for a maximum 16 points possible, with Crater earning the other first-place vote to finish a close second with 13 points. Roseburg (9), South Medford (8) and Grants Pass (4) rounded out the voting.
It's worth noting that the Comets return the bulk of their lineup as well and took two of the three games against North Medford last year to finish second in the SOH. Crater also advanced further in the state playoffs, losing in the quarterfinals on a walk-off home run to eventual champion Sheldon, and won the American Legion A state and Northwest regional titles last summer.
"They are loaded," said Crater head coach Jay Campbell of the Tornado, "but we beat them 2-of-3 last year. We're definitely not intimidated by them, but they've got a ton of pitching and are a solid club, for sure."
As a whole, the SOH stands to be tough to navigate thanks to a number of varsity returners spread throughout the league, specifically on the mound beyond what North Medford and Crater have to offer. Roseburg's top two pitchers Brady Haskett and Brady Fuller both return, along with Grants Pass' Ben Glaeser and South Medford's Caleb Newman.
"As I say year in and year out," said GP head coach Brian Diatte, "I believe this conference is the best in the state and there's no time when you get a chance to walk on the field and take a nice deep breath. It's a very unforgiving schedule and if you don't play your best game, you're going to get beat."
At North Medford, the wealth of pitching options borders on embarrassing thanks to the return of Colton Westfall, David Crofton, Micah Brown and Josh Berman. Throw in Cascade Christian transfers Isaiah Luzny and Jordan Ragan, who are each left-handed, and the potential of several up-and-comers just waiting for their chance and pitching doesn't stand to be an issue for the Tornado.
"We have a lot of depth pitching-wise, no question," said Wolfe. "We don't have enough innings. We can go a lot of ways as far as our pitching goes."
Westfall was the conference's pitcher of the year and a first-team all-state selection as a sophomore last year, going 11-1 with a 0.75 ERA. Crofton was a first-team all-SOH pitcher and honorable mention on the all-state list.
Offensively, Brown is the reigning SOH player of the year and was a first-team all-state infielder after batting .395 with 22 RBIs, 22 runs and 10 stolen bases.
Also spearheading the list of returners for North are three-year starting catcher Austin Zavala and outfielder Christian Gillis, who were each on the SOH first team, along with all-conference selection Jared Evans and fellow outfielders Brett Pearson and Troy Fowler.
"We're so strong behind the plate with Austin," said Wolfe. "He knows how to call a game, manages the pitchers and he's confident back there, and he can swing the bat, too."
The same could be said over at Crater, where Tyler Aplin shared first-team all-conference catcher honors and is a big key to his team's success on the offensive and defensive ends. Aplin anchors a pitching staff that is led by second-team all-SOH performers Nolan Bastendorff, Ty Fox and Dylan Pearce and expects to be helped by Gunnar Asher, Taylor Tibbets and Joey Caballero.
Bastendorff's last loss came in the quarterfinal showdown with Sheldon. He went 10-0 over the summer and has already opened this year with two wins. Fox similarly hasn't lost since the end of last year's conference slate, while Pearce is coming off a career-best 13-strikeout performance on Thursday.
Where the Comets have always shined, however, is at the plate and the return from injury of senior Blake Fahndrich only serves to deepen a lineup that also includes seniors Paul Turner, Zach Lathrop, Tyler Plankenhorn and Tanner Ryerson.
"I think we're going to be pretty tough outs one through nine again offensively," said Campbell, "and I think we have some good pitching and we play pretty good defense. We have a pretty good combination with all three facets of the game."
Campbell said the Comets are also showing good focus already this season and understand what needs to be done to fulfill their short- and long-term goals.
"These guys expect to win so it's not something we have to talk about a lot," said the ninth-year coach. "We're working hard every day, making sure we're able to put the time in to win a bunch of games and see where we end up when it's over."
Based on the return of Haskett and Fuller, along with standout junior catcher David Irvine, Roseburg sits as a darkhorse to upset the title hopes for North Medford and Crater. Head coach Troy Thompson said his team doesn't really have the set lineup it's had over the past decade, but he likes the versatility and options his team will have for the SOH slate.
The Indians return seven players who were in the starting lineup, and likely could have followed the same path over the summer as the Comets but their legion squad couldn't secure the one win necessary to advance on the final day of the state tournament.
South Medford returns seven starters as well, led by second-team all-state outfielder Jimmy Sporer and honorable mention all-SOH seniors Brandon Lupton, Eric Wallan and sophomore Brady Breeze. Newman anchors a capable but largely unproven pitching staff with Lupton, while first baseman Nate Walker and catcher Austin White are steady performers.
"Across the board we're as good as we've been since I've been here as varsity coach," said Panthers head coach Ray Smith. "On paper it looks good, it's how we perform on the field and how we execute and our efficiency with the pitching staff that's going to determine our success."
At Grants Pass, Glaeser and sophomore Cody Ekwall expect to top the pitching rotation but suffered a tough break in the fall when Easton Bents, who was a second-team all-SOH infielder as a freshman, tore his labrum during football. Bents just recently was released to play and will be limited to designated hitter duties this spring.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry