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Mustangs look to regain dominance

Some American Legion baseball teams would be satisfied by winning 34 of 55 games.

Don't include the Medford Mustangs in that group, however.

The Mustangs weren't at all pleased with their 34-21 record of last season, mostly because they failed to qualify for the state tournament for the first time in a decade.

Youth, injuries and a slew of close losses were to blame.

Such struggles aren't likely to revisit the squad in 2001.

Fueled by an experienced pitching staff and five returning starters in the field, the Mustangs are anxious to reclaim their status as one of the top Legion teams in the state, if not the Pacific Northwest.

Medford opens its season today at Chico, Calif., for a 4 p.m. doubleheader, then meets Redding Sunday for an 11 a.m. twin bill. Its first home game is Thursday against Klamath Falls.

"I'm excited," says Brent Watts, who took over the head coaching duties from Sandee Kensinger last season. "I don't know how this team stacks up with the ones in the past, but I'm confident good things are coming our way."

Watts' optimism is sparked by a deep and talented pitching staff.

Right-handers Chris Empio and Tony Conklin, who are both coming off successful college seasons, and recent South Medford High graduate Matt Skundrick have the credentials to be the ace of most any Legion staff.

Toss in left-handers Brent Kircher from North Medford and Travis Dunlap from Phoenix, and the Mustangs have the makings of its deepest staff in years.

"Our pitching is going to be 100 percent better than last year," Watts says. "It's nice to have all that experience back."

Conklin, who pitched at Lassen (Calif.) Junior College this spring, posted a 9-1 record for the Mustangs last season and is 17-3 over the past two years with Medford.

Empio, fresh off a college season at Albertson's in Caldwell, Idaho, led the Mustangs in earned run average last summer (2.48) while registering a 5-3 record, but was ailing throughout with a knee injury.

"Chris is healthy now and ready to go," Watts says. "He's throwing hard. He should be tough to beat."

Dunlap was also injured last season. The burly third baseman/pitcher appeared in only 38 games because of a knee injury, but still had 10 home runs and 43 RBIs while hitting .396.

"He's a force," Watts says. "He's got great power, but he also makes contact. He's a tough out."

Other returning starters include center fielder Phil Ouellette, who hit .371 last season, shortstop Evan McArthur (.335) and right fielder Shawn Backstrom (.325).

Watts' biggest chore is finding a second baseman. South Medford's Ryan Heil and North Medford's Joe Morris would have been the leading candidates, but Heil didn't turn out and Morris is leaving the area.

Skundrick, utility man Tyler Engle and Rob Folsom could all see action at the second sack, although Watts hesitates to move Folsom from catcher, where he was a first-team, all-conference performer for North Medford this spring.

At 15, Folsom is the youngest player on the team but also could be one of the best. He batted .415 for the Black Tornado and did a yeoman's job behind the plate.

"I don't ever remember a kid this young this good," says Mustangs general manager Don Schneider, now in his 17th season with the club. "He's very talented and he loves the game, and he certainly doesn't play like he's 15 years old."

Prospects for first base are Kircher, Conklin, North Medford's Dustin Butler and South Medford's Dave Henneman.

Vying for outfield positions are South Medford's Clint Rodreick and Jon McCollum. Both could also see time on the mound, as could South Medford's Ryan Parker, a left-hander who dislocated his shoulder during the high school season.

As usual, the Mustangs will compete in Area 4, which is considered one of the tougher American Legion leagues in the state. Other Area 4 teams are Klamath Falls, Grants Pass, Crater, Roseburg, North Coos and Eugene Pepsi.

Assisting Watts are Kensinger and Pete Whisler.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com