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Mustangs confident heading into regionals

Most baseball teams would be begging for a little break these days but that’s not the case for the Medford Mustangs, who enter this week’s American Legion AAA Northwest Regionals with a bounce in their step and a 13-game winning streak in their pocket.

As healthy as the team has been all season and playing their best baseball, the Medford Mustangs enter the eight-team, double-elimination tournament on a high note after securing the program’s 12th state championship over the weekend in Grants Pass.

“I would think that their confidence is right where it needs to be,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben, whose team is 32-13 overall.

Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, but there is a definite optimism revolving around the players and coaches as they approach the regionals, which run Thursday-Monday at Swede Johnson Stadium in Eugene.

“I think we’re excited to have the opportunity to go out there and compete against the rest of the region’s best,” said Mayben. “I hope we go up there and can enjoy the moment and enjoy the experience and have fun in the process and, obviously, play our best baseball. If we can do those things, no matter what happens, we’ll have been successful.”

Medford has previously won regional titles in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2009, finishing as the national runner-up in ’97 and ’09. The Mustangs will open the tournament at 5 p.m. Thursday against Alaska’s state champion, the South Anchorage Wolverines.

The Boise (Idaho) Gems and Missoula (Mont.) Mavericks open the tourney at 10 a.m. Thursday, with other games including the Yakima Valley (Wash.) Pepsi Pak against the Gillette (Wyo.) Roughriders and the host Eugene Challengers against defending champion Waipahu of Hawaii.

Only Eugene, runner-up in the Area 4 standings, and Waipahu return to the regionals, with the team from Hawaii finishing third at the American Legion World Series last summer.

“Besides that we’re all in same boat,” said Mayben, who was a 16-year-old second baseman on the Mustangs’ 1997 team. “Nobody’s really done it before so we’ll see where it goes when we get there.”

Medford will face the Cinderella story of the tournament when play begins. The South Anchorage Wolverines had to win their final league game to qualify for the state tournament, defeated the No. 1 seed as a No. 8 seed in the opening round and will be taking a seven-game winning streak into the regionals.

Nick Jensen, a pitcher/shortstop who is committed to Grays Harbor College, was named the outstanding pitcher of the Alaska state tournament and also pitched in the Arizona Fall Classic, striking out eight in four innings against the Under Armour national team.

Providing a definite offensive punch for South Anchorage is tournament MVP Alec Valdez, who is committed to Augustana College. Valdez is hitting .588 and will play football and baseball in college. First baseman Jake Crapps is batting .380 entering this week’s tourney and will also pitch for a Wolverines squad that prides itself on pitching and defense.

Mayben admitted to knowing very little about South Anchorage but that’s not unusual when it comes time to face out-of-state competition.

“You look at stats and go, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good,’ but you just don’t know,” he said. “All that you can do is go in and know that these teams are all going to be very solid teams because you don’t get this far without that, no matter what state you’re coming from.”

The Mustangs were at their best this past week in Grants Pass, scoring 37 runs and allowing only 14 in a five-game span that saw them belt out 56 hits overall.

Leadoff hitter Christian Gillis has come on strong over the second half of the season and enters the regionals with a team-best .366 batting average after hitting .460 in the state tournament. Gillis also leads the team in runs scored (38) and has made several impressive running catches from center field.

Shortstop Micah Brown, who was named Most Valuable Player at the state tourney, is hitting .346 with 21 runs and 23 RBIs and has helped anchor Medford’s defense. Designated hitter Bryce Rogan (.357, 26 runs, 22 RBIs), catcher Austin Zavala (.339, 34 runs, 30 RBIs) and first baseman David Crofton (.322, 14 runs, 18 RBIs) have also played a key role in generating offense.

Gillis, Brown, Zavala and Crofton were also on North Medford’s Class 6A state championship team this past spring with fellow Mustangs Jared Evans, Josh Berman, Isaiah Luzny, Colton Westfall and Jordan Ragan.

“The question is for us just to continue to get the hitting that we’ve been getting,” said Mayben. “I think our pitching’s been solid all year and we have a lot of confidence in that and know our pitchers are going to throw strikes and our defense has been doing a lot better. If we can continue to have the confidence at the plate that we have had the last couple weeks, it will make us pretty tough to beat. But all these teams are pretty good teams.”

The Mustangs fell into what Mayben described as the “best-case scenario” by wrapping up the state title on Sunday in only one game. Crofton’s nine-inning gem allowed Medford to not have to bring Westfall back on three days rest and will allow him to open the regionals, just as he did the state tournament.

Westfall boasts a 6-2 record and 2.20 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings as the leader of a pitching staff that carries an overall 2.25 ERA.

Luzny (3-0, 1.41 ERA), Crofton (2-3, 1.68 ERA), Carter Glick (3-1, 2.50 ERA) and Cody Coggins (3-1, four saves, 1.60 ERA) were instrumental at the state tournament. Medford’s depth on the mound has been its greatest asset, with Ragan (2-2, 3.46 ERA), Cody Hoff (4-2, 2.15 ERA) and Caleb Newman (5-2, 2.78 ERA) also making big contributions.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Medford Mustang David Crofton celebrates with teammate Micah Brown after beating Portland to win the American Legion AAA State Tournament at Agnew-Lytle Field in Grants Pass, on Sunday, August 03, 2014.