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SOC teams brace for playoffs

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

At least that's been the case in Southern Oregon Conference baseball. Although heralded as one of the premier leagues in the state, the SOC's No. — seed has drawn mixed reviews over the past few years in the Class 4A state tournament.

But a calendar quirk might just alleviate some of the pressure placed on SOC co-champion North Medford as it dips into the state playoff waters at 4:30 p.m. today against Newberg at Miles Field.

In calendar years ending in odd numerals, the No. — seed out of the SOC hasn't advanced beyond the second round since Mazama lost in the state semifinals in 1995.

But when even numbers round out the season, the SOC's top draw has had much more of a fighting chance.

In that vein over the past eight years, the SOC's No. — seed has twice advanced to the state championship (1996 and 2000) and lost once each in the semifinals ('94) and quarterfinals ('98). Mazama won the Class 4A title in '96, while North fell short against Crater in the '98 title game.

Coincidence or not, the top-ranked Black Tornado (23-3) will take any extra bit of karma it can into 2002's wide-open race for the championship.

In the latest rankings, each of the top six teams boasts at least one first-place vote, with North Medford holding a marginal edge (62 points and two first-place votes) over Reynolds (61, 1), North Eugene (60, 2), Century (58, 1), Pendleton (55, 1) and Oregon City (50, 1).

Helping the Black Tornado dodge the bull's-eye on its back will be a deep rotation and nary a weak link up and down the North lineup.

Senior right-hander Evan McArthur leads the pitching staff with a 9-1 record and 1.66 ERA, while left-handed senior Brent Kircher is 6-2 with a 2.80 ERA. Junior lefty Brett Timmerman has chipped in nicely at 5-0 with a 0.99 ERA.

McArthur also leads the way on offense, hitting .379 with a team-high 33 RBIs - five shy of the school record.

Leadoff batter and catcher Rob Folsom is hitting a smooth .488, while center fielder J.C. Rowley is at .457 and third baseman Russ Vandell .416 for a team hitting .356 overall.

Newberg enters today's game on the heels of a 2-1 win over Churchill during Friday's subtournament round.

In that game, starting pitcher Tyler Thomas allowed one run in six innings and Alex Bailey had three of the Tigers' six hits against the Lancers.

SHELDON AT ASHLAND- Despite finishing as SOC champions for the second straight season, eighth-ranked Ashland (17-7) didn't exactly earn a free pass in today's 4:30 p.m. matchup at North Mountain Park.

Sheldon, which lost to eventual champion Lakeridge in last year's semifinals, finished in a tie for second place with Thurston at 11-5 in the Midwestern League but had to settle for a No. — seed due to a tiebreaker.

Sheldon (14-11) is led by seniors Zach Moran, Tyler Brown and Spencer Bisgaard and juniors Alex Brink and Nick Anderson. Moran is hitting a team-high .426 with 21 RBIs, while the 6-foot-7 Brown is at .396, Bisgaard at .380, Anderson at .356 and Brink in the .400s for an Irish team hitting .344 combined.

Brink, who also quarterbacked Sheldon's football team to the championship game, heads the contingent on the mound with a 6-1 league record and 2.63 ERA. The hard-throwing right-hander features a popping fastball, but can also come at hitters with a solid curveball and split-finger pitch.

"He's going to come at you," Sheldon coach Jim Fryback says of Brink. "He doesn't walk a lot of people."

Sheldon enters today's game having gone 9-2 in its last 11 games.

"We're feeling pretty good about ourselves and playing pretty well," says Fryback. "Our defense has been real shaky but it's starting to shape up a little bit."

Like most in the state, Fryback views this year's championship race as one up for grabs between a handful of programs.

"I don't think there's anybody this year that's that dominant," he says, "but in state tournaments the team that usually wins isn't always the best anyway."

Ashland plans to counter Sheldon with senior ace Mike Allen on the mound. The right-hander is 7-3 with 68 strikeouts and a 2.36 ERA. The Grizzlies also have a more than capable backup in left-handed sophomore Chad Hegdahl, who is 7-1 with a 1.59 ERA.

Leading the Grizz offensively will be the usual quartet of Bill Rowe, Titus Weston, Ryan Decker and Allen. Rowe is hitting .443 with 21 RBIs, while Weston is at .390 with 25 RBIs, Decker at .397 and Allen at .356 with 21 RBIs.

Ashland's senior-dominated lineup is also one that has preached all season about not being satisfied with another SOC championship.

CRATER AT CANBY- Typically one of the final SOC teams still in action as the state playoffs roll on, Crater (17-9) opens this year's drive against a Canby team that won the Pacific-9 Conference.

Ninth-ranked Canby (17-8) is making its eighth straight playoff appearance under coach Marty Hunter but had a quick exit last season, dropping a 4-2 subtournament game at Roseburg.

Junior first baseman Marcos Quintero, senior outfielder Drew Bayless and senior shortstop/pitcher Josh Cushing lead the way for the Cougars, who also feature right-handed ace Jason Grisham.

After being ranked as high as No. — in the state, Crater has dropped five of its last six games heading into today's game.

"We're just trying to get back on track ourselves," says Crater coach Chuck Dominiak. "We have a pretty tough road to go but we'll just have to take our chances with Canby and go from there."

Crater will thrust Derek Petersen (9-4, 2.30 ERA) into the spotlight in hopes of righting the ship. The senior right-hander has been the team's ace on the mound for two seasons and was a key figure in leading the Comets to the semifinals last year.

"Every time you throw somebody like that a team's going to play a little better because it gives you confidence," says Dominiak.

Also providing a boost is the fact that Crater hit .357 as a team in SOC play, with second baseman David Sills at .405, third baseman Frank Drake at .410 and catcher Jared Maddocks, who should be back at full strength after injuring his back two weeks ago, at .398.

ROSEBURG AT GRANT- As hot as Roseburg was entering the last two SOC doubleheaders, sweeping top-ranked Crater and North Medford on consecutive Saturdays, the Indians cooled off considerably with a split at Grants Pass and a sweep by South Medford.

Roseburg (20-6) will try to right the ship today against a Grant squad that finished second to Franklin in the Portland Interscholastic League.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail