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Showdown in the SWC

Sheldon baseball coach Kenny Niles had hoped for a little less fanfare surrounding his team heading into its first Southwest Conference campaign.

But even the fourth-year head coach can't deny the buzz surrounding his Irish, which boasts three players who have already signed to play next season for Pat Casey and Oregon State University.

"Three kids going to play for last year's national champions ... it's hard to downplay that," Niles admits.

It's also hard for the rest of the league not to instantly tab Sheldon as the favorite to claim the first SWC baseball title.

The Irish received that nod recently in preseason voting by the conference's coaches, garnering four first-place votes and 24 points overall to edge out North Medford by two points. The Black Tornado received the remaining two first-place votes.

Roseburg is tabbed to finish third with 15 points, followed by Grants Pass (12), South Eugene (10) and South Medford (7).

The main reason for optimism at the Eugene school rests in the capable arms of pitchers Alex Besaw, Chris Vitus and Brandon Hayes. All three future Beavers are capable of quieting even the most ballyhooed offensive attacks.

"If high school baseball comes down to pitching like everybody says, I do like our chances," says Niles. "But it's kind of a unique year for us because I feel like our team from an offensive standpoint may be better than the pitching."

If that's true, then the Irish are certainly primed for a run at the Class 6A state title as well.

But that doesn't mean the rest of the SWC is willing to take a backseat just yet.

"Baseball's a strange game," says North Medford coach Brett Wolfe. "The strongest doesn't always win and the fastest doesn't always win. That's why fat guys can play it, because if they execute well, you win ballgames."

Wolfe wasn't exactly pointing a pudgy finger at his sleek Black Tornado, who are seemingly as equipped to make a big run this season as the Irish. North Medford returns the bulk of its starting lineup from last year, and has pitching depth comparable to its counterpart.

"When you've got that kind of pitching like they're supposed to have," Wolfe says of the Irish, "you definitely have an advantage because I believe 95 percent of this game is pitching. But I'd put our kids up there against anybody."

Each team will get a chance to gain early bragging rights, with North Medford playing host to Sheldon at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the SWC opener for both teams. In Tuesday's other games, South Medford plays at South Eugene and Grants Pass is at Roseburg.

The Black Tornado returns seniors Shea Bedortha and Logan Odom to the pitching staff, as well as junior Andrew Jones. Add freshman phenom Matt Maurer to the mix, along with junior Dylan Bedortha and sophomore Hayden Wolfe, and North Medford is well-equipped to handle a 15-game league schedule that includes single games on Tuesday and Saturday doubleheaders.

"I think North Medford is the team to beat," says Niles. "They had a great summer last year and were one game away from winning the (American Legion A Northwest Regional). I think they're going to be really strong."

It's precisely that summer experience as the Mavericks that has Brett Wolfe so excited about the prospects for his team.

"Most of these kids played 62 games together last summer," says the coach. "With the experience of traveling around in that 15-passenger van shoulder to shoulder, they're a very cohesive group."

The same could be said for Sheldon, according to Niles, since the team returns all but a catcher and first baseman to its starting lineup.

Besaw leads the charge for the Irish after being named Midwestern League player of the year last season after a dominating effort that saw him go 8-1 on the mound and only strike out twice at the plate. Besaw was named to the all-state first team as an infielder last year, and led the Irish with 24 RBIs. When the 6-foot-2 right-hander isn't on the mound, he'll settle in at third base and shortstop (depending on who's pitching). Besaw throws a mid-80s fastball complemented by a good breaking ball and split-finger fastball.

Vitus was an all-state selection for Marist High last year, and his addition can't be downplayed considering the right-hander was the Sky-Em player of the year. Vitus, who can hit about 90 mph on the radar gun with his fastball, also boasts a good changeup and breaking ball. He also plays third base and will hit third in front of Besaw.

While Hayes could be a No. 1 pitcher for most teams, the 6-3, 205-pound lefty will fill the No. 3 spot for Sheldon. Hayes, who also bats second and plays left field, boasts a mid-80s fastball with what Niles describes as a "Barry Zito-like" big curveball. Hayes is the nephew of former major leaguer Von Hayes.

Beyond the Beaver trio, Sheldon is led offensively by three-year starter Tyler Martell in center field, infielder Greg Wirtala and right fielder Kaleb Carter.

"I don't necessarily think we're a team that has to play 2-1 ballgames," adds Niles.

Once again, that concept mirrors the Black Tornado lineup. Senior catcher Darren Bruhns returns to the leadoff position, and is followed by a potent bunch of hitters that includes junior center fielder Jordan Bostwick, second baseman Jones, first baseman/outfielder Odom, designated hitter Kody Stevens, third baseman Aaron Marlia and shortstop Zack Earle.

First baseman Shea Bedortha and outfielders Blake Mitchell and Hayden Wolfe don't allow for a letup at the bottom of the order, and even reserve players Colin Sowers and Tyler Spears are capably waiting in the wings to do some damage at the plate.

"Offensively I think this is one of the better teams we've had, and we've had some pretty good teams," says Brett Wolfe. "There are tough outs all the way through the lineup."

But even as potent as North Medford can be at the plate, it all starts on defense for a Black Tornado team that has committed only three errors to date.

Helping that defense stand up is a rotation stacked with potential No. 1-type pitchers in Shea Bedortha, Jones, Odom and Maurer. The elder Bedortha was one of North's steadiest pitchers last year in his first full varsity campaign, while Jones and Odom performed well in their first taste of the top level. Maurer may have been North's top pitcher during the Mavericks' magical run to the state title and as regional runners-up.

"Last year they were all wet behind the ears, but this year is totally the opposite," coach Wolfe says of his pitching staff. "We've got a lot of innings underneath all those guys, and that experience factor should pay dividends. All those kids give us a chance to compete."

Other players to watch in SWC play will be senior center fielder Craig Dolmage of Grants Pass, an honorable mention all-state selection; Roseburg's double-play tandem of junior shortstop Boone Farrington and second baseman John Tommasini; and South Medford junior right-handed pitcher Griff Boyd.

SHELDON

COACH: Kenny Niles (fourth year)

LAST YEAR: 20-7, 12-4

CURRENT RECORD: 5-5

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Alex Besaw P/3B/SS Sr.

Brandon Hayes P/LF Sr.

Tyler Martell CF Jr.

Kaleb Carter RF/P Jr.

Peter Jaeger 2B Jr.

Greg Wirtala SS/3B Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Chris Vitus P/3B Sr.

Wyatt Davis C So.

Zach Manley 1B So.

Ben Higgins IF/DH So.

Brad Coffee OF/DH Jr.

AT A GLANCE: Being tabbed as a favorite to win the conference title is a little new to Sheldon, which previously has been competitive in the Midwestern League under Niles but unable to get over the hump and claim the top spot. This year's lineup is filled with veteran experience and undeniable talent, with Besaw, Hayes and Vitus all signed to play next year at Oregon State. ... Besaw provides a calming influence to the Irish. The 6-foot-2 standout played QB in football, was a lead guard in basketball and is a safe bet to lead his baseball team to yet another standout season. The pitcher/infielder was the Midwestern League player of the year last season and was equally adept on offense and defense. ... Niles believes his team is 11-strong in terms of depth. Besides the transfer Vitus, Davis and Manley are the only newcomers to the starting lineup. ... Because of his senior peers, Carter is considered the No. 4 pitcher but the right-hander has already received strong reviews from area scouts. ... Martell is a three-year starter who hits leadoff from the left side and boasts tremendous speed, while Wirtala packs a punch in the No. 5 spot.

NORTH MEDFORD

COACH: Brett Wolfe (13th year)

LAST YEAR: 14-13, 12-9 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 11-0

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Darren Bruhns C Sr.

Logan Odom P/RF/1B Sr.

Shea Bedortha P/1B Sr.

Aaron Marlia 3B Sr.

Zack Earle SS Jr.

Andrew Jones P/2B Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Jordan Bostwick CF Jr.

Matt Maurer P Fr.

Kody Stevens 1B/DH Jr.

Hayden Wolfe P/OF So.

Blake Mitchell LF Jr.

Dylan Bedortha P Jr.

Tyler Spears Util Jr.

Colin Sowers C/OF Fr.

Sharif Young P Jr.

AT A GLANCE: North Medford suffered through its share of growing pains last year, but all that experience should bode well for the Black Tornado this year. Leading the charge are seniors Bruhns, Odom, Shea Bedortha and Marlia. "That's a good group of kids," says coach Wolfe. "They're all good athletes and good students." ... Defense has been a staple of North's early success, with the team turning 13 double plays through eight games against three errors. "Defensively we've been making the plays you have to make," says the coach. "The kids have been hitting the cutoff man and limiting people to 90 feet." ... Bruhns returns as leadoff hitter, with Bostwick, Jones, Odom, Marlia and Earle adding to what stands to be a very potent lineup. ... Stevens played in Washington last year and will provide plenty of power in support of Odom in the No. 5 spot. ... North comfortably goes seven-deep in the bullpen and has similar depth throughout the lineup.

ROSEBURG

COACH: Troy Thompson (fifth year)

LAST YEAR: 24-2, 20-1 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 5-2

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Scott Allred P/1B/3B Sr.

John Tommasini 2B Sr.

Boone Farrington SS Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Justin Counts P/OF Sr.

Kyle Hansen C Sr.

Jordan Guthrie DH/C So.

Kellen Spicer P/1B Sr.

A.J. Royal RF Jr.

Brad Lint LF Sr.

Jordan Radford LF Jr.

Kody Inda IF Sr.

Brett Poitner P Jr.

Dakota Cavens P So.

Matt Holloway OF Sr.

AT A GLANCE: Roseburg is tasked with replacing five players who earned all-league mention last year, including the player of the year in Blake Keitzman and Los Angeles Dodgers draftee Eric Thompson. Scott Allred (RHP) and Justin Counts (LHP) will be asked to shoulder the pitching load, with Poitner, Cavens and Spicer adding depth. "Both (Allred and Counts) throw a lot of strikes and keep hitters off balance with a different array of pitches," says Thompson. ... Tommasini and Farrington spearhead a defense that is solid up the middle with the inclusion of Hansen at catcher and Counts in center field. "They make a lot of routine plays and they make a lot of plays look routine," the coach says of Tommasini and Farrington, who will also be asked to spark the offense at the top of the lineup. ... With that duo being joined by Allred, Counts, Guthrie, Royal and Hansen, the Indians should be able to hit the gaps on offense and score their fair share of runs. Thompson says team speed will be a team strength.

GRANTS PASS

COACH: Stacy Morgan (19th year)

LAST YEAR: 8-19, 6-15 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 3-7

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Craig Dolmage CF/P Sr.

Page Morgan C Sr.

Shawn O'Brien SS Sr.

Ryan Fauver 3B/OF Sr.

Zach Morgan P/2B Jr.

Buddy Saxon 1B Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Casey Albright P/3B Jr.

David Chaldu P/OF Jr.

Mike Suthann P/LF So.

Travis Hengel RF So.

Ryan Miller IF So.

Brandon Drury IF Fr.

AT A GLANCE: For GP, it all starts on the mound, where Zach Morgan started only two games last year and Dolmage one as the top returners. "We're very, very inexperienced on the mound so we're going to have to grow up in a hurry," says coach Morgan. "I think we will, but to what extent I don't know." ... Chaldu is the only lefty of the staff, and will be aided by Albright and Suthann in providing the Cavemen some options on the mound to throw to first-year catcher Page Morgan. ... GP is confident offensively with a top-heavy lineup that features Miller, Zach Morgan, Dolmage, Saxon, O'Brien and Page Morgan. All have shown the ability to put the ball in play and can make things happen on the basepaths as well. "Those six are pretty solid kids," says the coach. "They all swing the bat pretty well." ... Dolmage suffered a knee injury during the football season but returned for basketball and appears ready for a final hurrah in baseball. "Craig's just Craig," Morgan says of the all-SOC outfielder. "He's a good athlete and every time you expect him to do something, he does just a little bit more."

SOUTH EUGENE

COACH: Chris Vermeer (first year)

LAST YEAR: 16-10, 10-6 Midwestern

CURRENT RECORD: 5-3

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Ethan Trachtenberg OF/P Jr.

Travis Rooke-Ley P/OF Jr.

Jack Carpenter 2B/SS Sr.

Evan Brown 3B Jr.

Sam Holman OF/P Sr.

Dan O'Brien P/OF Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Alex Woldt 1B Sr.

Alex Morrison 1B Sr.

Cody Linklater 1B Sr.

Peter Klingman SS/OF/P So.

Skylan Alexander OF Jr.

Harris McCarty C So.

Doug Alberts OF Sr.

Robby Land 2B/C Sr.

Malachi Evans 3B/C Jr.

Chris Becker 2B So.

AT A GLANCE: After a two-year stint at Thurston, the last one as head coach, Vermeer returns to a South Eugene program he previously spent four years as an assistant. ... O'Brien and Rooke-Ley stand atop a rotation that includes Trachtenberg. All three are right-handers, and attack batters in varying ways. O'Brien is a little more of a power pitcher, while Rooke-Ley has a nice downward movement to his pitches. ... All-state catcher Ben Kiesse opted not to return for his senior season in order to concentrate on football, opening the door for McCarty and Evans. ... All-leaguers Rooke-Ley and Trachtenberg return to the outfield and are aided by O'Brien and Holman. ... Rooke-Ley and Carpenter set the table on offense, followed by Trachtenberg, Holman, Brown and Woldt. "If we're hitting the ball well, we're going to be competitive because we can pitch and we can field pretty well," says Vermeer.

SOUTH MEDFORD

COACH: Tom Britton (first year)

LAST YEAR: 23-6, 16-5 SOC

CURRENT RECORD: 2-6

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Griff Boyd P/1B Jr.

Trent Smith SS/OF Sr.

Jared Smith P/1B Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Josh Camp P/3B Jr.

Branson Holm P/OF Sr.

John Adamson 2B/3B Jr.

Mitchell Britton P/SS Jr.

A.J. Palazollo C/OF Jr.

Andrew Bennett P/OF Jr.

Mike Williamson C Jr.

Patrick Thibeault OF So.

Chris Granger 2B Sr.

Mike Whitten OF Sr.

AT A GLANCE: South Medford returns only one everyday starter in Trent Smith and one experienced pitcher in Boyd, making for some growing pains early in the season. "We're still trying to find who we are, and that's tough when you haven't been there before," says Tom Britton, who previously spent 26 years as head coach at Eagle Point. ... Boyd will be asked to shoulder the brunt of the load on the mound, with the junior right-hander aiming for a breakout campaign in his third varsity season. ... The rest of the pitching staff, which is without a left-hander, is still settling in. Holm, Camp and Jared Smith have already shown positive signs of being able to compete at the varsity level, with Mitchell Britton also being asked to provide pitching depth. "The kids that we have are going to be there, it just takes some time," says the coach ... With both Smiths, Adamson and Boyd at the top of the lineup, the Panthers should be able to put hits and runs on the board, but consistency up and down the lineup will be the key.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

Junior Andrew Jones will be part of North Medford’s solid pitching rotation.