The Medford Mustangs had the luxury of knowing that winning a state championship wasn't all that important to their ultimate goal one summer ago.

The Medford Mustangs had the luxury of knowing that winning a state championship wasn't all that important to their ultimate goal one summer ago.

When the American Legion AAA state tournament begins today, however, there is nothing more vital to the Mustangs than being the last team standing on Sunday.

"As much as these kids enjoy spending time around each other," says Mustangs manager Sandee Kensinger, "if you want to continue it, you've got to win."

Last year as host of the Northwest Regionals, Medford received a bye into the tourney and didn't need a state crown to advance. With no bye to fall back on this year, the only way for the Mustangs to defend their regional crown is to get to Spokane, Wash., the old fashioned way with at least five wins this week.

Medford (34-8) will look to take the first step at 4:30 p.m. today when it takes on the Madison-Portland Eastside Barbers (29-11) at Kiger Stadium in Klamath Falls. The double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday.

"Our biggest thing is we need to keep our intensity up throughout the games," says Mustangs right fielder Cody James. "If we can keep that up, I don't think there are many teams that can beat us. Anything can happen on a given day, but if we're playing with intensity, we're tough to beat."

The Mustangs proved that by winning the Area 4 crown going away. Medford posted a 13-3 mark in league play, four games ahead of the runner-up Eugene Challengers (9-7) and five in front of the 8-8 Klamath Falls Falcons and Roseburg Dr. Stewart's.

Eugene (35-16), Roseburg (23-12) and host Klamath Falls (29-19) all advanced to the state tournament, giving it a decided Area 4 flair. Also making it out of last week's super regionals besides Madison were the Salem Withnell Dodgers (30-8), Salem Post 9 Highwaymen (18-20) and reigning state champion Corvallis Richey's Market (26-12).

Of that group, today's opponent is the only one the Mustangs haven't squared off against already this season. Medford owns wins over everyone else except Salem Withnell, which is why the Dodgers are Kensinger's pick as the tournament favorite.

"Everyone will put the target on our back but I think they're the team to beat," says the Mustang manager. "They're always there and they've got some good players and came in here and handed us our lunch on a platter (in a 17-10 romp on July 15)."

Beyond that, though, Kensinger said the Mustangs will have plenty of competition for the state title. Medford also owns single-game losses to Klamath Falls and Roseburg, and had to rally for a doubleheader sweep of Salem Post 9 (5-3 and 4-3 on July 8).

"The way things set up with the super regionals, everyone that is there (at the state tournament) has a chance to win it as far as I'm concerned," adds Kensinger.

One aspect of the tourney that gives the Mustangs a glimmer of hope is the site itself. Medford has enjoyed some of its biggest hitting nights of the season playing in Kiger Stadium, most recently belting out nine home runs in a doubleheader sweep of the Falcons on July 13.

"We swing the bat a lot better out of our ballpark," says Kensinger. "That park (Harry & David Field) is a curse to us sometimes. It's a beautiful facility but we have a power-hitting team. Get us out of our ballpark and I think offensively we're even better."

That is saying something considering the Mustangs boast a team batting average of .397 entering this weeks' action. That number ranks second on the all-time single season list behind the 2003 version of the Mustangs that hit a combined .407.

Second baseman Dan Katayama leads the team with a .464 batting average, slightly ahead of center fielder Seth Brown (.455) and catcher Colin Sowers (.453). James (.430) and first baseman Matt Maurer (.424) also are hitting above .400, with left fielder Lucas Stone not far behind at .397 with a 12-game hitting streak entering the tourney.

In the power department, Sowers boasts a team-best eight home runs and .780 slugging percentage in the leadoff spot, while Brown and Maurer have each hit six homers. Eight Mustangs have hit at least three round-trippers.

Brown leads Medford with 57 RBIs, followed by Maurer (49), Sowers (46), Katayama (42) and James (38). Sowers has also scored 64 runs, just ahead of Katayama (61).

However, the Mustangs will have to do without the services of left fielder/pitcher Ian Kendall, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays last week and will join its Rookie League team in Port Charlotte, Fla., within the next week.

"Losing a fifth-round draft pick at this point in the season is kinda tough but we've dealt with it before with (Bobby) Wolcott when we lost him halfway through the season," says Kensinger. "Ian's a great kid and a good team player, whether he was in the lineup or not. With that loss, we need some other guys to step up."

James says he's confident that the Mustangs will have what it takes to help fill the void of Kendall, although he certainly cannot be replaced. The Ashland standout wrapped up the summer hitting .406 with 35 RBIs, six homers and 36 runs scored.

"You don't replace a guy like Ian," he says, "but we have such a good team and we have people who've showed they can step up and fill the roles just fine. We still think we can compete with anybody."

Kendall's absence likely will be felt the most on the pitching mound, where he was 4-2 with a 2.28 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 272/3 innings.

Maurer (5-0, 3.06 ERA), Bradey Shipley (4-1, 1.80), Garrett Tygerson (5-1, 3.05) and Lucas Stone (2-1, 3.50) expect to get the starting nods this week for the Mustangs, with Justin Bohn (3-1, 3.33) also capable of logging big innings.

That said, Kensinger said his team will need more from the bullpen if its going to take down the state's best.

"Obviously we swing the bat well over in Klamath, but a lot of people do," said the manager. "The ball really flies there. We need to tighten up our defense and some of the younger guys we have around for pitching need to step up because those are nine-inning games and we can't expect our starters to go all nine."

Nate Namanny has shown promise with a 4-0 record and 3.13 ERA, but has also battled some inconsistency as of late. Fellow South Medford starters Sean Pearson (1-0, 5.13) and Austin Reames (1-1, 5.36) and North Medford's Michael Bradshaw (3-1, 4.04) also fall into that mix.

The winner of today's Medford-Madison game plays the Salem Withnell-Eugene winner on Thursday at 4:30 p.m., while the losers of each game play an elimination game at 9:30 a.m.

Today's other matchups pit Salem Post 9 against Corvallis at 12:30 p.m. and Roseburg against Klamath Falls at 7:30 p.m.

All Mustang games in the tournament will be carried live on KCMX 880-AM.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com