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Unanimously targeted

With a slew of returning starters back, North Medford is the favorite to win its fourth SOC title in six years

Second-ranked North Medford hasn't altered its uniform per se, but that hasn't changed how the Black Tornado baseball team appears to everyone else in the Southern Oregon Conference this season.

North's black, red and white uniforms take on another appearance for its opponents, one characterized by a bunch of circles and a big bull's-eye directly on the Tornado's chest.

With nine returners from last year's co-SOC championship squad, and a couple key transfers, North has been unanimously targeted by its peers as preseason favorites to claim its fourth conference title in six years.

Our kids know what's in front of them and that everyone's going to be gunning for them, admits ninth-year North coach Brett Wolfe, but we have a lot of experience and nothing can replace experience. Our players have had success before and also have had failure, so they know what to expect.

In the SOC coaches' poll, North Medford received every first-place vote but its own and scored 49 points overall. Roseburg received the other top vote, and is the coaches' pick as the Tornado's chief threat with 43 points.

We've been hearing about Roseburg a lot so that's our No. — challenger right now, says North senior Dustin Butler, but then again we can't let down against anybody. This league is too tough.

In a countdown that shows just how close the playoff race is expected to be, the No. — spot is shared at 25 points by last year's co-champion Ashland, Grants Pass and Klamath Union. One point behind in sixth is South Medford, followed by Crater (21) and Eagle Point (12).

I think, with the exception of North, I've never seen it so even, says Tom Britton, who is entering his 25th year as Eagle Point's head coach. I don't think there's a team in the league where there's not a chance of making the playoffs.

Leading the charge for North again this season will be returning first-team all-SOC catcher Rob Folsom, second-team selections Butler (first base) and Tyler Engle (utility)and honorable mention pick J.C. Rowley (outfield).

Also returning are seniors Brett Timmerman, Jimmy Ulrey and Jeff Adams and juniors Russ Vandell and Beau Hovland.

Folsom, a third-year starter, batted .478 in conference play last season, driving in 10 runs and scoring 14 from his leadoff spot. The junior will also be asked to log a few innings on the mound as well this season.

Butler, a sweet-swinging lefty, will have his workload doubled again as he makes his return to the pitching rotation following a one-year absence. Butler, who boasted a 5-2 record as a sophomore, teams with Timmerman to give North a solid 1-2 southpaw punch. As North's No. — pitcher last season, Timmerman boasted a 5-0 record with a team-best 0.99 ERA.

Joining the trio on the mound will be a host of first-year pitchers in senior right-handers Travis Glass, Hovland, Ulrey and junior transfer Charlie Behnke from the Sacramento area.

Even with such capable arms, pitching stands to be North's primary obstacle if only for the fact that the Tornado are so talented and experienced everywhere else.

We're all pretty equal on our pitching staff ... just nothing spectacular, says Butler. We don't have an ace on the team but I don't think that's going to be a problem. We can get it done, and we have a great defense behind us which we're not afraid to use.

Barring a complete meltdown, all that may be enough as North possesses one of the most potent offensive attacks in the state. The Tornado hit .356 as a team last year, with Rowley at .457 and Vandell at .416.

You definitely can't pitch around one guy because almost everybody in the lineup can hit it out of the ballpark, says Engle.

While the Tornado will have to make up for the loss of one of its most potent bats last season in SOC player of the year Evan McArthur, senior transfer Reese Lamson has already shown he has the tools to lessen the blow in a lineup complete with contact hitters.

Our kids are really confident with him filling in at that No. — hole (in the batting order), Wolfe says of Lamson. He's a heady player and he just likes to play. He's a very quality kid.

While the Tornado can flex its muscle with the best, Crater head coach Jim Powell says North is far more than one-dimensional offensively.

I know they talk about power, says the first-year coach, who takes over for Chuck Dominiak, but with the amount of speed on that North team, I see them getting on base a lot and their speed is just going to wear teams down. They just put a lot of pressure on you.

No more pressure than the Tornado has put on itself this season after a lackluster showing in last year's state playoffs.

Despite having the SOC's No. — seed and the No. — ranking in the state, North committed eight errors, left 14 runners on base and suffered a 10-7 loss to Newberg, the No. 4 team from the Pac-9 Conference and eventual state runner-up to Southridge.

That was definitely not a game that we wanted to be our last for that season, says Engle. Ending on something like that makes you sick to your stomach. We're going to work hard to make sure that doesn't happen again.

North Medford coach Brett Wolfe, center, confers with catcher Rob Folsom, left, and pitcher Brett Timmerman. With nine returners back, North is the favorite to win the SOC title. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven