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Comets still on the rise

Crater is a narrow choice over South Medford to defend its SOC softball crown

Crater defied conventional wisdom during its remarkable run through the Southern Oregon Conference softball campaign last season.

The Comets made a mockery of their predicted third-place finish by becoming the first team since North Medford's 1999 squad to race through the 14-game SOC slate unbeaten.

Despite losing a slew of key seniors from that squad, conference coaches have narrowly picked Crater to repeat as SOC champions.

It's going to be a battle in the SOC this year, says fourth-year Comet coach Chris Arnold, whose team dropped a second-round state-playoff game to Tualatin to end last year 26-1. The league lost a lot of great seniors but it seems like each team has some strong younger players that'll make things interesting this season.

Crater, with five first-place votes, received 47 points to edge out South Medford (45) for the top spot. The Panthers received the remaining three first-place votes.

— North Medford was chosen third with 35 points, Roseburg fourth with 32, Grants Pass fifth at 23 and Eagle Point sixth with 22 points, followed by Klamath Union (11) and Ashland (9).

There are probably five or six ball clubs that will battle it out (for the four state-playoff spots), says third-year South coach Dan Marshall. I see the conference champion with probably three or four losses.

In Saturday's conference-opening doubleheaders, Crater visits Roseburg, Ashland travels to Grants Pass, South Medford hosts Klamath Union and North Medford goes to Eagle Point.

Crater, which managed to win its first state-playoff contest since 1998 with a 2-1 triumph over Century a year ago, didn't trail once during a game until the playoffs.

Despite the slew of personnel losses, the Comets seem to be reloading.

Defensively, we're coming together nicely, says Arnold of his team's progress. The big question mark will be with our bats. We have to replace some pretty big hitters in our lineup.

But we've got some pretty hungry young kids this year.

If the Comets, 8-1 entering Saturday's games, are to repeat, an unblemished SOC slate isn't a likely scenario.

Crater lost 17-game winner Jenni Bittle ' now pitching at Northwest Christian College in Eugene ' and catcher Justine Bettencourt, who graduated early as a junior.

This year's Comet squad will be all about pitching, defense and more pitching.

Returning all-SOC first-team hurler Janelle Cristofaro softens the blow of losing Bittle, while sophomore Ashleigh Cuddie could also make some noise on the mound.

Cristofaro, a fiery presence on the hill, went 7-0 a year ago and didn't yield an earned run in conference games.

Janelle's likely going to get the bulk of the work, says Arnold, who also lost leadoff hitter Allesha Spradling, and utility players Sam Wolmelsdorf and Paula Moore to graduation. She's such a competitor.

But Ashleigh might share some of the burden. We'll have to see what happens.

Sophomores Becca Lokeno and Susan Winningham will split time behind the plate.

South Medford (4-2), picked to win the conference last season, managed to finish five games back of the Comets for second place a year ago.

The Panthers return the most experienced team in the SOC with eight seniors and 11 total varsity players ' three of them all-SOC first teamers.

All-league pitcher Jen Mendenhall and all-star third baseman Jackie Chaplin, now a shortstop, highlight a strong lineup.

We've been there and we know what it takes, says Marshall. Physically, the talent is there. I think mentally we're ready to battle for the conference championship.

Junior pitcher Jill Jeter joins Mendenhall as a formidable 1-2 punch, while senior Alex Jordahl returns behind the plate after missing last season with a knee injury.

Simone Hubbard, an all-conference pick at catcher last year as a sophomore, moves to third base this season. She'll be joined by senior second baseman Jonni rne and either junior Marissa Towry or senior Michele Trautman at first.

Marshall also has another year under his belt at coach, something he feels could push South over the top.

I'm certainly not a rookie coach anymore, he says. I think, just like the girls, I've learned some things. Hopefully, with more experience now, we'll be able to pull out some tight games if we need to.

North Medford lost a reputable coach in Brent Barry, but gained a former Black Tornado standout in 1998 graduate Missy Doerr.

Barry took the athletic director position at Phoenix High following a run to the state quarterfinals.

Doerr, known as Missy Coe while leading North to three straight state-title game appearances over her final three seasons, played collegiately at the University of Oregon. She was also a member of North Medford's first 12-under ASA team.

While the Tornado hasn't exactly fallen on hard times, it still has taken a step back in terms of conference dominance.

North missed out on at least a share of the conference crown last year for the first time in nine seasons.

It's amazing how much better all the teams are now, says Doerr, a catcher while playing for North. Not that they weren't good back then (when I played), but now it seems like anybody could win it.

Leading the North Medford attack will be senior pitcher Kendra Strahm and senior shortstop Deni Rowley, who moves to the infield to replace the steady fielding of Darcy Cordell.

The Tornado also returns first-team catcher Steph Haskett to bolster what could be a versatile lineup.

I'm very, very confident in our lineup, says Doerr. We have a lot of depth there.

Roseburg returns one of the top players in the league in junior shortstop Ali Paz, who helped the Indians to a third-place tie with Grants Pass and North Medford last season.

Kim Posey, the team's lone senior, also returns to pick up some of the pitching slack with junior Jayde Curry.

Grants Pass and Eagle Point will also be in the mix for one of the four SOC state-playoff spots.

The Cavers, who defeated Roseburg in a league playoff to slip into state last year, are led by Justine Cerda.

The senior shortstop should be a conference player-of-the-year candidate, says seventh-year coach Clay Rounsaville.

She's phenomenal, he says. Without a doubt, she's one of the most dedicated kids I've ever coached.

Freshman Chelsea Chamberlain and junior Ashley Franko are the primary pitchers but Chamberlain has gotten the bulk of the load through nonconference.

Senior pitcher Kelsey Heider will keep Eagle Point in most games, and possibly in the hunt for a playoff berth. Kirsten Emigh will spell Heider on the mound when the situation calls for it.

Klamath Union and Ashland may struggle against the rest of the SOC again this year. The two teams combined for three SOC wins a year ago ' Ashland finished last at 1-13.

But with senior catcher Kristen Croxford and her potent bat back, the Pelicans may have a fighting chance against some of the conference heavyweights.

Ashland, with first-year coach Robin McCormick, started the season 4-0 but have dropped four of its last six games entering league play.

The Grizzlies are led by senior shortstop Alysse Carlson, the team's lone returning all-conference pick, and sophomore pitching sensation Jasmine Smith.

.

SOC SOFTBALL

2005 Predicted Finish

Coaches poll:

(First-place votes in parentheses)

1. Crater (5)47

2. South Medford (3)45

3. North Medford35

4. Roseburg32

5. Grants Pass23

6. Eagle Point22

7. Klamath Union11

8. Ashland9

2004 Final Standings

LEAGUEOVERALL

WLPct.GB

x-Crater1401.000'

x-South Medford95.6435

x-Grants Pass86.5716

x-North Medford86.5716

Roseburg86.5716

Eagle Point68.4298

Klamath Union212.14312

Ashland113.07113

x'playoff qualifier

CRATER

COACH: Chris Arnold (fourth year)

LAST YEAR: 26-1, 14-0 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 8-1

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Janelle CristofaroP/OFSr.

Ty SutherlandSSSr.

Becca ShelamerCFSr.

Angela Bettenburg3BSr.

Staci Bauer1BSr.

Kristin DavidsonRFJr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Ashleigh CuddiePSo.

Susan WinninghamCSo.

Becca LokenoCSo.

Mindy BanksUTJr.

Kristen HagaUTSo.

Haley Hevern2BSo.

AT A GLANCE: Last season's phenomenal run ended with a second-round, state-playoff loss to Tualatin. Another unbeaten campaign in the SOC is unlikely with the loss of pitcher Jenni Bittle, one of five graduated players. We lost some unbelievable seniors, says Arnold. Anytime you lose a 17-game winner (Bittle), a leadoff hitter (Allesha Spradling) and your starting catcher (Justine Bettencourt) then there will be an adjustment period. ... Cristofaro will get the bulk of the duties on the mound. She went 7-0 and didn't give up an earned run in the SOC last season. Cuddie will share some of the pitching duties when Cristofaro needs a hand. ... Winningham and Lokeno will split time behind the plate with the loss of Bettencourt, who graduated early as a junior. (Bettencourt) is tough to replace, says Arnold. Not only defensively, but her stick was huge for us. Those are big shoes to fill. ... The infield won't need much work. Crater returns experienced players at each position, with Sutherland, a four-year starter, anchoring the defense at shortstop. ... Crater's lone loss in nonconference was to defending state champion Westview. The Comets, behind a strong game from Cristofaro, took a 1-0 lead into the seventh only to commit five errors and lose the game 4-1.

SOUTH MEDFORD

COACH: Dan Marshall (third year)

LAST YEAR: 20-8, 9-5 SOC.

CURRENT RECORD: 4-2

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Jackie ChaplinSSSr.

Jennifer MendenhallP/1B/OFSr.

Alex JordahlCSr.

Jonni rne2BSr.

Bethany StouslandOFSr.

Simone Hubbard3BJr.

Jill JeterPJr.

Marissa Towry1B/OFJr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Michele TrautmanINF/OFSr.

Desiree MilletteOFSr.

Jackie FultonOFSr.

Colleen MorganSSSo.

Kenzie TowryINFFr.

McKenzie BoteilhoPSo.

AT A GLANCE: A year older and a year wiser. That's the approach South Medford will take into this season. Picked as the SOC champion last year, South didn't produce the offense to make the impact in league many had predicted. Basically, we've got great pitching and great defense, says Marshall, who returns eight seniors. The question mark is hitting. We've been through the rigors of winning a conference championship (two years ago). Now it's a matter of putting it all together this year. ... The 11 returning varsity players makes South the most experienced team in the conference. ... Chaplin, a two-time all-SOC third baseman the past two seasons, will try her hand at shortstop. Jordahl, who missed last season with an injury, takes over the catching duties from Hubbard, now at third. ... South has three returning first-team all-SOC performers (Mendenhall, Chaplin, Hubbard). ... Trautman and Marissa Towry will battle it out for first base. Both could also see time in the outfield. ... The Panthers started 10-0 last year before finishing 10-8 over the last 18 games. One of our goals, says Marshall, is to not play our best ball in March, but to do it in May and June.

NORTH MEDFORD

COACH: Missy Doerr (first year)

LAST YEAR: 19-10, 8-6 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 2-2

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Deni RowleySSSr.

Stephanie HaskettCSr.

Kendra StrahmPSr.

Rachelle Willden3BSr.

Katie GouldCFSo.

Mallorie HooverPSr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Emily Morrill2BFr.

Jessica Sandoval1BJr.

Amanda VolgarinoRFSo.

Tiffany SchmelzerLFJr.

Kaci SevanoUT/DHSo.

Kayla TiplerUTSr.

Erica SandersPJr.

Kandice HallettPFr.

AT A GLANCE: North Medford needed a late run last season to qualify for its 23rd straight state-playoff appearance. Doerr is hoping her first year coaching in the SOC will start a little more smoothly. I am very pleased with our lineup, she says. They have all executed well so far. She has also noticed the rise in the level of play in the SOC. The league's completely different from when I played here. It seems like the level of play with everybody is awesome. ... North lost nearly its entire starting infield to graduation. To compensate, Doerr moved all-state outfielder Rowley to shortstop and plugged in Willden at third, Morrill at second and Sandoval at first. Gould, Volgarino and Schmelzer will roam the outfield. ... Strahm, North's No. — pitcher, started the nonconference strong with a one-hit, 18-strikeout performance against South Salem. She finished 11-5 last season. ... Kaci Sevano, the younger sister of former North pitching standout Keri Sevano, will see time as a utility player or designated hitter. ... Doerr recruited younger sister and former Tornado pitcher Steph Coe and Casey Mayben to assist. ... North Medford has owned at least a share of nine of the last 10 SOC titles.

ROSEBURG

COACH: Tony Campos (third year)

LAST YEAR: 16-8, 8-6 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 5-3

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Ali PazSSJr.

Kim PoseyP/UTSr.

Brandi Campos2BSo.

Ashley Roy3BJr.

Bryttny KreshkaRFJr.

Tanya JohnstonCSo.

Kristen HarrisCFJr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Jayde CurryPJr.

Mikayla EndicottPFr.

Brittany Gates1BFr.

Tasha Bishop2BSo.

Jasmine CroweC/1BFr.

Rachelle HedgesOFJr.

AT A GLANCE: Roseburg made steady gains over Campos' first two seasons. The Indians went from a 6-8 finish two years ago to an 8-6 mark and a third-place tie. They lost in a league playoff to miss out on state but Campos, despite having three freshmen and three sophomores, thinks Roseburg could take another step up the SOC ladder. We got another year under our belts, says Campos. We only have one senior (Posey) but we do have some experience in big games. I think some people underestimated us last year, but I don't think that'll happen again this season. ... The Indians are without senior all-SOC center fielder Denay Martin, who decided to run track instead. Martin, a lefty leadoff hitter, provided big-time speed and a solid bat at the top of the order. Harris will move from left to center to fill the void. ... Brandi Campos broke the pinkie finger on her glove hand a week ago. Doctors say the injury will take anywhere from two to six weeks to heal. Campos will try to remain at second base, but will be a designated hitter if she struggles fielding the ball. ... Roseburg had 41 hits over four games at the North Medford Invitational. ... Endicott, Curry and Posey will get the bulk of the pitching duties.

GRANTS PASS

COACH: Clay Rounsaville (seventh year)

LAST YEAR: 13-14, 8-6 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 5-1

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Jamie TorgersonLFSr.

Justine CerdaSSSr.

Ashley FrankoP/OFJr.

Tess Bransfield2B/1BJr.

Kori SeymourOFSr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Iris Woodhead2BJr.

Allie FarmerDH/3BJr.

Jennifer DolmageCSr.

Nancy KarlCJr.

Denise RunnelsOFSo.

Chelsea ChamberlainPFr.

AT A GLANCE: Grants Pass surprised many after starting the SOC 0-4, only to go on an 8-2 run to qualify for the state playoffs. Rounsaville, the SOC's longest tenured coach, has plenty of weapons back, including one of the league's best in Cerda. How she goes, we'll go, says Rounsaville. I know there are a lot of good players in the SOC, but she's a very special kid. Without a doubt, she could very easily be the player of the year. ... Cerda, a first-team pick a year ago, will play on full scholarship for Middle Tennessee State next year. ... Woodhead missed most of the nonconference slate after having her knee scoped but should be ready for the SOC. ... Dolmage replaces Karyne Sander, now playing at Lewis and Clark, as the starting catcher. ... The Cavers lost Trista Morton (transferred to North Valley), Jenny Spurling (transferred to Hidden Valley) and Danielle Sereda, who decided not to turn out for her junior season. A lot of times kids think they have a better shot at playing somewhere else, says Rounsaville. It's so competitive with all the kids coming up from the younger program. ... Franko and Chamberlain will share the pitching duties. I think (Chamberlain) will do a fine job, says Rounsaville, and Ashley did a great job for us as a sophomore. Our season will be made on pitching and defense.

EAGLE POINT

COACH: Jackie Auchard (second year)

LAST YEAR: 14-11, 6-8 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 6-0

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Shannon Richardson3B/PSr.

Kelsey HeiderPSr.

Terrah WhippleSSSo.

Dawn Wilkerson2BSo.

Amanda HamnerCJr.

Kirsten EmighP/CFSo.

Carissa SchaufflerRFSo.

OTHER NOTABLES

Brooke GriggsCSo.

Brittney GriggsLFJr.

Tenielle Anderson1BSo.

Sarah Miesner2B/OFSr.

Brie BoucherOFFr.

AT A GLANCE: The Eagles played the role of spoiler last season, knocking off SOC contenders Roseburg and South Medford, but they'd like to expand on that this season. It seems like we have a young team, says Auchard of her sophomore-dominated lineup, but this group of girls fit together so well. I'm really looking forward to see what we can accomplish. ... Heider will continue to be one of the most feared pitchers in the conference. The senior, who was Eagle Point's primary hurler last season, will team with Emigh to form what could be a pretty formidable duo. Both have done an excellent job so far, says Auchard. Kirsten has developed a couple of more pitches to keep people off balance. If they both continue to throw well, then I'll definitely split them (during SOC doubleheaders). ... Boucher, the lone freshman on the roster, will rotate in the outfield. She has everything you want in an outfielder, marvels Auchard. She has the speed, arm and can put some power on the ball. ... Eagle Point will play six sophomores, and just two juniors. ... The Eagles will run into stiff competition right off the bat. Three of their first four doubleheaders come against SOC playoff contenders (North Medford, Roseburg and South Medford).

KLAMATH UNION

COACH: Kristi Sturgeon (fourth year)

LAST YEAR: 10-12, 2-12 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 1-2

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Kristen CroxfordCSr.

Ashley Willhite3BSr.

Whitney CumminsOFSr.

Kaylene BurkeP/SSSr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Nikki AyersPSr.

Ashley EricksonUTSr.

Brenna Aspera2BJr.

Kayce WomackOFJr.

Heidi Stewart-KuhlmanOFJr.

Brittney Areu1BSo.

Tempest DawsonOFFr.

Trevelynn SearsOFSr.

AT A GLANCE: Klamath Union started 8-0 last year and 7-0 the year before prior to the SOC slate. League play, however, hasn't been kind to the Pelicans, who are 7-21 over the last two seasons. Six rainouts and only three nonconference games under their belts have prevented Sturgeon from getting a good look at this year's squad heading into the SOC. We'll just kind of jump in and see what happens, she says. I think pitching-wise we'll be all right, but I have concerns about us putting runs on the board. ... Ayers will be the Pelicans' primary pitching threat. The senior played for Sturgeon two years ago before spending last season living in California. ... Tabitha Cooke, a senior outfielder, missed all of last season and won't suit up this year either after re-injuring her knee in basketball. ... Stewart-Kuhlman was out part of last year with a knee injury and is slowly coming back to form for the SOC slate. ... Croxford, a left-hander in the No. — slot, is Klamath's biggest threat at the plate. She can bunt, slap hit or drive the gaps. But teams pitched around her last year and Sturgeon expects the same treatment this time around. ... Burke will move from second to short to replace the graduated Bess Fagan, KU's lone all-SOC first-teamer last season.

ASHLAND

COACH: Robin McCormick (first year)

LAST YEAR: 9-15, 1-13 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 6-4

RETURNING STARTERS

PlayerPos.Yr.

Alysse CarlsonSSSr.

Amanda CardozaRFSr.

Janice JonesCFSr.

Bailey HastyLFJr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Jasmine SmithPSo.

Emily McLaughlinPJr.

Kate GibbsCSr.

Kayla Cardoza2BSo.

April Jorgenson1BSo.

Sammi Gilbert3BFr.

Anna AdamsUTSo.

AT A GLANCE: McCormick, Ashland's junior varsity coach for the last six years, takes over a team that has won just two SOC games over the last two seasons. While optimistic, McCormick isn't setting the bar at an unreasonable level. I think the girls have a really good outlook on the season, says McCormick, who replaces four-year coach Rich Beugli. They're very excited for (the season) to start but at the same time we're realistic. ... The Grizzlies lost six seniors from last year's squad, most notably Aimee Jeska (first base/pitcher) and Amanda Bolsinger (pitcher). Jorgenson will take over at first and Gilbert, the team's lone freshman, moves to third. ... Smith, the sister of Amanda, Kayla and JV catcher Kyra Cardoza, has emerged as Ashland's top pitching threat. Jasmine has worked very hard, McCormick says. She changes speed and has great movement on her ball. She's meshed well with (catcher) Kate Gibbs. ... McLaughlin will also see some time on the mound. ... Carlson and Hasty, a second-team all-SOC outfielder, started practicing late after playing for the state-playoff bound Ashland basketball team. Carlson, as the leadoff hitter, will set the table for the offense. She's a tremendous athlete, says McCormick. She's an excellent hitter. I'm absolutely confident in her.

PAST SOC CHAMPIONS

2004 '

Crater

2003 '

(tie) North Medford and South Medford

2002 '

North Medford

2001 '

North Medford

2000

' North Medford

1999

' North Medford

1998

' North Medford

1997 '

North Medford

1996 '

North Medford

1995 '

North Medford

1994 '

Mazama

1993 '

(tie) Crater, Mazama and North Medford

1992 '

(tie) North Medford and South Medford

1991 '

(tie) North Medford and Eagle Point

POSTSEASON OPENERS SOC No. 1:

State playoffs, first round, May 23 at home vs. Mt. Hood 4 or Metro 4.

SOC No. 2:

State playoffs, first round, May 23 at Metro 2.

SOC No. 3:

State playoffs, first round, May 23 at Mt. Hood 2.

SOC No. 4:

State subtournament, May 20 at home vs. PIL 4.

Crater pitcher Janelle Cristofaro did not allow a run through Southern Oregon Conference play last season. The Comets are the preseason favorites to repeat as champs. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli