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South slides into top spot

Panthers edge North, Roseburg as preseason favorites for SOC baseball title

It took years of hard work and dedication for the South Medford baseball program to finally claim its first Southern Oregon Conference title.

The next test may be even more challenging.

To be considered one of the elite baseball programs in the conference, the Panthers realize the next step is in maintaining that level of success.

It's kind of given us a sharper focus this year, says South coach Steve Antich of the raised expectations. People understand a little more what it's all about and what it took to win it last year, and they remember how much fun it was for us to come out on top.

— And while South Medford has been anointed the preseason favorite to repeat as SOC champs by the conference's coaches, the road from Tuesday's opener to the end of the 21-game season is filled with more than a few obstacles.

I think our league's as tough now as it was in 2000 when North and Crater played for the state title, says Grants Pass coach Stacy Morgan. There's really not a team that's going to lay down for you.

As testament to how tight the race for the SOC championship will be, only one vote separates South Medford, North Medford and Roseburg at the top.

The Panthers top all others with 43 points and two first-place votes, with North and Roseburg each totaling 42 points. The Black Tornado received two first-place votes, while the Indians, who are ranked No. 4 in the state's coaches' poll, garnered four first-place votes.

It's a quality league and, as last year proved, any team can beat any team on a given day, says Roseburg coach Troy Thompson. That's what it's going to be like again in the coming year.

Grants Pass was tabbed for fourth place in the preseason poll with 33 points, followed by Klamath Union (19), Eagle Point (18), Crater (16) and Ashland (11).

Making the SOC that much more difficult to figure this year is the vast number of returning all-conference pitchers.

North boasts left-handers Cole Rohrbough and Josh Suarez, with left-hander Blake Keitzman at Roseburg, right-hander Daniel Bennett at Klamath Union, right-hander Nolan Morgan at Grants Pass and right-hander Rick Imhausen at South.

And the list goes on and on for a host of hurlers capable of earning their all-SOC stripes.

I think the pitching in this league is the best around, especially because most of it is left-handed and experienced, says Stacy Morgan. Because of the pitching, if you can be one of the top four in our league, you're going to have a chance to play a lot of games in the postseason.

I think that's really exciting for the league and should make for great baseball.

While 1-0 and 2-1 baseball games could be the norm, it's hard to imagine the SOC becoming totally pitching oriented when you consider South returns clutch hitters like Dan Chancler, Logan Boyd and Justin Meyer, North has Abe Eubank and Kyle Williamson back in the fold and Roseburg and GP each return all-state hitters to talent-rich teams.

You just go through the whole list and it's like, 'Oh my gosh, there's some really quality players out there,' says KU coach Tim Simmers.

And that's just taking into account the players who made names for themselves in the last couple years.

A team like South boasts an entirely new infield save the catcher position and a new center fielder, yet the coaches think enough of the young Panthers to put them at No. 1.

We've got a lot of young, talented players who could have big years for us, says Antich, who was the SOC coach of the year last season, but, then again, you just don't know exactly what's going to happen until they get out there because it's a whole new level.

I believe we have a chance (to repeat), he adds, It's always hard, though, because you never know what other people have and who pans out, and there's always some surprises out there.

Along with returning catcher Ben Koziol, South will look for newcomers Jared Adamson, Marcus James, Zach Wilson, Ryan Odell, Mark Austad and Eric Mobbs to continue the momentum gained by last year's breakthrough campaign.

Although their pitchers don't have the same high profile as some others in the league, the Panthers' rotation is steady and more versatile than last year.

Antich says Imhausen and Tommy George are as dependable as they come, while newcomers Kenny Licea and Nick Donato and lefties Boyd and James provide considerably more depth than the team has had in quite some time.

Last year we had a staff of guys who were all kind of the same pitcher, says Antich. No matter who you went to, it was a right-hander who nibbled. This year we have a better mix. We've got some guys who can let it go, we've got some lefties and guys who you can count on to throw strikes and be around the plate.

That said, the best pitching combination may be at North, where Suarez and Rohrbough blend high velocity and knee-buckling breaking pitches to near perfection.

Suarez was 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA and 44 strikeouts in SOC play last year, while Rohrbough came on strong at the end of the season and is capable of posting double-digit strikeouts in each start.

Suarez and Rohrbough are quality kids who can beat anybody any day, says Thompson.

The dynamic duo are also enough to help the Black Tornado maintain title hopes while also breaking in an almost entirely new roster.

Those two kids set the tone for the game and the rest of the kids can just relax and play the game, says North coach Brett Wolfe. It takes a lot of pressure off the younger kids and that's a huge asset for us.

Every time they go to the mound we know we have a chance to win because we know they're going to keep us in the game. And if we make a mistake, it won't be the ballgame because they'll find a way to work around that and keep it close.

Eubank hit .386 with 20 runs and 15 RBIs in SOC play last year and was an all-state first baseman, while Williamson hit .339 with 14 RBIs and 12 runs for North and will move over to shortstop full time this year.

Talented newcomers Darren Bruhns, Zack James, Logan Odom, Matt Schmeltzer, Dustin Shipley and Tony Salamone have already shown no hesitation in their first seasons as Tornado starters.

At Roseburg, third-year starter Keitzman will be joined again by Alex Cook to head the rotation, with all-state utility player Dusty Brigham leading a group of returners like Aaron Buxton, Brian Benson, Quentin Clark and Mitchell Nelson that make the Indians one of the most experienced teams in the SOC.

Nolan Morgan's return after a knee injury sustained during the football season has been a boon for the Cavemen, who also boast all-state shortstop Mike Mills and returners Patrick Allen, Adam Donnelly, Ben Murray and Steve Draper.

Bennett will once again guide KU's fortunes, with more expected this season from returners Kevin Huntley, Christian Anderson and Adam Cornachione.

At Eagle Point, junior returners Nick Staller, Derek Grieve and A.J. Nichols join senior shortstop Ryan Augino in what could be a breakout season for the Eagles, while Crater is another young squad which could shake things up in the SOC before all is said and done.

At Ashland, first-year varsity coach Don Senestraro was given the reins midway during the school year but has the enthusiasm and returners like Steve Jorgensen, Aaron San Nicholas and Andrew Del Carlo to ease the transition.

South Medford?s Dan Chancler hit .406 and scored 18 runs in Southern Oregon Conference play last year. Chancler, a first-team all-SOC outfielder, will play center field for the Panthers this season. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli