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South has eyes on SOC title after sweep of KU

Surprise.

The South Medford softball team, tabbed fifth in the preseason coaches poll and two years removed from a 1-13 league record, entered Saturday's doubleheader at Fagone Field atop the Southern Oregon Conference with a 9-1 record.

Surprise.

Klamath Union, forecast as the conference's last-place team after going 1-13 to claim that very dishonor a season ago, came into the day at 5-5 in SOC action and tied for fourth place.

Not so surprising.

The Panthers, ranked eighth in the state's Class 4A poll, swept the Pelicans, 6-1 and 4-0, to hop two steps closer to the program's first-ever outright SOC championship. South (17-4, 11-1 SOC) shared the league title in 1992 and last made the state playoffs in 1994.

The SOC season concludes next Saturday, when the Panthers host Crater in a doubleheader that could seal their coronation or result in a scramble atop the standings. North Medford (10-2 SOC) lurks just one game out of first place, while the Comets (9-3 SOC) are also still in striking distance.

But for the time being, South put itself in prime position with its sixth and seventh straight victories Saturday.

We're so pumped, said sophomore third baseman Jackie Chaplin, who smacked a pair of triples and collected three RBIs in the opener. It's unbelievable to think that we're first in the conference, and then if we sweep Crater, we have it for sure.

The Panthers' winning potion was a familiar one against the Pelicans (13-7, 5-7 SOC) ' peerless pitching, dignified defense and timely hitting.

In Game 1, senior Darci rne struck out a season-high 11 in holding KU to four hits and one run. Hitting one batter and walking none, rne's complete-game effort boosted her record to 8-3.

Game 2 was sophomore Jen Mendenhall's turn, and she delivered a four-hit shutout punctuated by seven of her nine strikeouts over the final three innings. She walked two in improving to 8-0 and still hasn't allowed a run in SOC action, during which she's fired six shutouts in six starts.

We haven't played North yet, but hands down, they were the best pitching we've seen, said Kristi Sturgeon, the Pelicans' second-year head coach.

Mendenhall has been so good, in fact, that even Sports Illustrated has taken notice.

Her mug and a short description of her exploits this spring ' topped by the perfect game she threw to beat then No. 1-ranked North on April 19 ' appear in this week's issue as part of the Faces in the Crowd item.

Mendenhall's father went online to nominate her for inclusion in the weekly feature and was called a couple weeks ago with news that she would indeed be in the magazine. Her father, Monte, spilled the beans then, but Jen Mendenhall was still somewhat astonished to see herself in print.

I saw it (Friday), she said. I kinda don't really believe that I'm actually in Sports Illustrated.

In support of its imposing pitching duo, South struck for 10 hits in the opener and four more in Game 2.

After KU scored just the second run the Panthers have permitted in 12 SOC games in the top of the first inning of the opener, South evened the tally in the third on an RBI single by sophomore Katie Kaufman, who slapped a doubleheader-high three hits.

It remained 1-1 until the bottom of the sixth, when the proverbial floodgates opened following a couple of hard-luck sequences for the Pelicans and starting pitcher Bess Fagan.

Mendenhall reached on an error to begin the frame, stole second and raced home on sophomore Alex Jordahl's single to right field. The home-plate umpire initially moved to rule Mendenhall out on the play, but KU catcher Krystal Daibes dropped the ball after making the tag.

Then South poured it on.

Sophomore Jonni rne's one-out single scored Jordahl, and senior Kaylee Rickert and sophomore Bethany Stousland followed with base hits to load the bases.

Up stepped Chaplin, and out went a shot to right-center field that chased home three runs and left the superb sophomore standing at third base, the victory all but iced.

We came out a little slow but finished strong, said Dan Marshall, who looks like a lock for SOC coach of the year in his first season in charge of the Panthers.

To complete the sweep, South scratched out a run in the first, two in the fourth and one in the fifth ' despite a combined three hits in those three innings.

We're getting better, said Sturgeon, whose squad made a handful of mental and physical miscues in the field that cost it any shot at an upset or two Saturday. But we make mistakes at bad times and just can't seem to get a timely hit.

The Panthers, meanwhile, continue to do everything right when it matters most.

We really believe that we can win any game, Mendenhall said.

FIRST GAME

Klamath Union ....................... 100 000 0 ' — 4 1

South Medford ..................... 001 005 x ' 6 10 0

Fagan and Daibes; D. rne and Jordahl. W ' D. rne (8-3). L ' Fagan. 2B ' KU: Croxford. 3B ' SM: Chaplin 2.

SECOND GAME

Klamath Union ....................... 000 000 0 ' 0 4 1

South Medford ................,...... 100 210 x ' 4 4 1

Ayers and Daibes; Mendenhall and Jordahl. W ' Mendenhall (8-0). L ' Ayers. 2B ' KU: James.

Reach reporter Tim Pyle at 776-4483 or e-mail