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Watts takes Mustangs' reins

Sandee Kensinger won five American Legion baseball state championships in his 10 seasons as manager of the Medford Mustangs, not to mention two regional titles and a runner-up finish at the 1997 World Series.

His overall record of 428-138 with the Mustangs is the best in club history.

That's a tough act to follow, but Brent Watts welcomes the opportunity.

Watts, 27, was handed the head coaching position this season when Kensinger decided to step aside. Kensinger will remain on staff as an assistant.

South Medford High head coach Pete Whisler completes a coaching triumvirate that could be the best in the state.

I didn't expect to get this job this soon but I do think I'm ready for it, says Watts, a former Phoenix High and Oregon State University standout who played professionally for fouryears. I like to think I know the game and can motivate kids.

And having two guys like Sandee and Pete to help you out is a dream come true. We're going to have a lot of fun and hopefully win a lot of games.

Medford posted a 3-4 record in the early going and opens its Area 4 season today with a 6 p.m. doubleheader at Miles Field against the Klamath Falls Falcons .

The Mustangs suffered a setback before the season started when they learned they couldn't include Crater High players due to enrollment restrictions. That means they lost pitchers Casey Campbell and Brent Foster, who helped the Mustangs to a 51-13 record last season and led Crater to the high school state championship earlier this month.

The upshot is that a pair of 16-year-olds who just completed their sophomore seasons in high school, North Medford's Brent Kircher and South Medford's Matt Skundrick, will be asked to carry much of the pitching load.

South Medford's Chris Empio and Tony Conklin and Cascade Christian's Bryan Edwards round out a starting staff that is long on talent but short on experience at the American Legion level.

We don't have a pitcher who truly stands out above the rest but all of those guys have their strengths and can win games, Watts says. Our pitching could end up our biggest strength.

Kircher, the lone left-hander on the team, surprised a lot of people in the spring when he blossomed into North Medford's top pitcher. He registered a 10-3 record, beat Campbell during a regular-season matchup and helped the Black Tornado to the Southern Oregon Conference championship and a berth in the state title game, where it lost 5-2 to Crater.

From what I've seen he's very poised for a kid his age, says Watts of Kircher. He's got a good breaking ball, a split-fingered fastball and he doesn't walk many batters.

Empio, who missed the high school season after undergoing knee surgery, and Conklin both logged considerable innings for the Mustangs last season. Conklin posted a 9-1 record and a 2.82 earned run average while Empio was 4-1 with a 4.72 ERA.

Edwards, meanwhile, could give batters fits with his sidearm delivery. The 18-year-old right-hander racked up a 13-1 record for Cascade Christian and led the Challengers into the Class 2A state semifinals this spring.

He's got a nasty slider and a tailing fastball, Watts says, and with that sidearm delivery it isn't easy to pick his ball up.

While the Mustangs were forced to omit the Crater players, they were able to add Phoenix's Travis Dunlap and Andy Bartels.

Dunlap, a third baseman who also figures to pitch, owns the Phoenix career home run record with 23 and still has his senior year to go. Bartels is one of three players — the others are Skundrick and North Medford's Dan Bruce — who are vying for the shortstop spot vacated by three-year starter Nate Mayben.

Bruce or North Medford's Evan McArthur will play second, while North Medford's Colby Gonzales will line up at first and South Medford's Chuck Shine at catcher.

Gonzales is coming off a sensational high school season in which he batted .515, compiled a 23-game hitting streak and struck out just four times in 130 at-bats. His .452 batting average led the Mustangs a year ago.

The outfield has speed to burn with North Medford's Phil Ouellette, Ken Halpin and Charlie Jensen expected to line up in left, center and right field, respectively. Shawn Backstrom will also see ample time in the outfield and at third base.

Designated hitter/pitcher Josh Bottjer rounds out the squad.

We've got some kids who can hit the ball out of the park but we need to rely less on our power and more on our speed, Watts says, adding that Ouellette, Halpin, Jensen, Bruce and Bartels are all capable of stealing bases. When kids start thinking home run too much they strike out too much.

And what we as a coaching staff can't tolerate are strikeouts, errors and ball four from our pitchers.

Along with Medford and Klamath Falls, other clubs comprising Area 4 this summer are Central Point, Grants Pass, Roseburg Dr. Stewart's, Eugene Pepsi and the Bay Area Rams of Coos Bay. Each team plays a 24-game league schedule.

The top three teams advance to the playoffs.

First-year Medford Mustangs head coach Brent Watts has an experienced staff. - Drew Fleming