Staring out toward the outfield at Harry & David Field as his players were warming up prior to Tuesday night’s game against Klamath Falls, Medford Mustangs general manager Paul White couldn’t help but be excited about the potential for another successful summer.
Two years ago, the Mustangs were stacked with returning talent and used it to win state and regional titles before falling one win shy of playing for the American Legion AAA World Series championship.
Last year, fresh faces filled the roster and, despite a slow start, Medford (37-22) caught fire in the end to win its third straight state championship and 14th overall before falling in the championship game of the Northwest Regionals.
This year offers an intriguing blend of returning talent and promising newcomers, along with a new twist thanks to the addition of players hailing from Eagle Point for the first time.
Where that will take the Mustangs is too early to know, but White and company are excited to witness it all firsthand.
“That’s what’s great about it,” said White, who doubles as Medford’s pitching coach. “You come in with new people every year and see what you can put together.”
Returning to the fold are the team’s Nos. 2-4 pitchers from one year ago in Nick Sanderson (Ashland), Berry Hunt (North Medford) and Ethan Whitney (South Medford), along with key 2016 contributors Tate Cowden (North Medford), Cole Carder (South Medford), Joe Johnson (St. Mary’s), James Turnbull (Phoenix) and Kasey Buchanan (North Medford).
Of that group, Hunt (Clackamas CC), Cowden (Linn-Benton CC) and Carder (Linn-Benton CC) are back after their debut collegiate campaigns, and each will be looked at to provide leadership in what stands to be a challenging Area 4 season.
Defending Area 4 champion Eugene figures to be stacked once again featuring players from Churchill and Sheldon, while runner-up Grants Pass will again get a boost from its Crater connection. Klamath Falls, led by Henley standouts, will provide a big challenge, along with Roseburg and Willamette Valley, which features players from Southwest Conference runner-up South Eugene.
“We’re going to have to grind this season out,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben, who is in his seventh year at the helm. “It’s going to be tough.”
The Mustangs typically field players from North and South Medford high schools as well as Ashland, Phoenix, St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian. Mayben had hoped to add Eagle Point over the years — with that area historically only fielding a Legion A squad — but the enrollment figures were too high until this summer.
Enrollment must total no more than 5,000 for grades 10-12, and the addition of Eagle Point would have put Medford about 25 students over that total last year.
This year, adding EP keeps Medford about 25 students under the threshold, allowing for players from that school to try out for the Mustangs or, if they choose, the Grants Pass Nuggets. Mayben said Eagle Point currently is not in any jurisdiction, essentially making those players free agents until there is a change by American Legion administrators.
Eagle Point seniors Preston Johnson, Coldin Shopp and Charles Little, junior Dylan Marsh and 2016 graduate Ryan Lorenz all will be Mustangs this summer. A few Eagles will be playing for the Nuggets.
“We’re excited about that,” Mayben said of the Eagle Point addition. “It’s going to be fun having them as part of what we do around here.”
On the mound, the Mustangs expect to be anchored by Sanderson (5-4, 3.37 ERA), Hunt (3-3, 3.95 ERA) and Whitney (5-3, 5.25 ERA). Joe Johnson (3-1, 4.60 ERA) and Turnbull also saw meaningful time on the mound last year and will look to shoulder more of a load.
Wyatt Baptiste, Preston Johnson and Shopp will join Whitney as pitcher-only prospects once the lineup is set to better prepare them for college in the fall.
“We don’t have the (Braden) Shipleys and the (Matt) Maurers and those guys that throw close to 90 (miles per hour),” said Mayben, “but I feel like we have some good depth, just like we did last year. I feel like that really boded well for us at the state tournament and at regionals, helping us get through those tournaments and be successful.”
Defensively, the Mustangs expect to be experienced and athletic in the infield and outfield.
Hunt and Turnbull played key roles on the left side of the infield last year and expect to get support from Marsh and Ashland’s Kellar Edwards.
On the right side, Cowden returns at second base with Sanderson and Joe Johnson sharing time at first base. Phoenix junior Brennen Watts, son of assistant coach Brent Watts, will play a utility role.
In the outfield, the expected lineup includes a return in center field for Carder, with South Medford’s Jacob Melton in left field and Lorenz in right field. Buchanan and Joe Johnson also will see time in the outfield.
North Medford’s Justin Geyer, Little and Turnbull all expect to see playing time behind the plate.
Offensively, Sanderson is the leading returner after batting .389 with 45 runs and 53 RBIs in 2016 and expects to be complemented by Cowden (.353, 68 runs, 31 RBIs), Carder (.330, 54 runs, 42 RBIs), Hunt (.311, 24 runs, 14 RBIs), Turnbull (.307, 24 runs, 24 RBIs) and Joe Johnson (.294, 25 runs, 23 RBIs).
“I expect us to have a little better start than we did last year,” said Mayben, “but it’s not about the start with us, it’s about how we finish — always.”
Joining Mayben, White and Watts on staff will again be former Mustangs standout Colin Sowers.
Tickets for Mustangs games at Harry & David Field are $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors. Season tickets cost $25.
All home games will also be streamed online at www.tablerocksports.net for the first time this summer.
For more info, go to www.ballcharts.com/medfordmustangs.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry