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RiverDawgs leaders excited for new opportunity

Reaction from Southern Oregon RiverDawgs founders to Wednesday's announcement that a deal had been reached with the West Coast League for a new college wood-bat summer team in Medford was one of pride despite the bittersweet reality that means the Dawgs will be no more after this summer.

"We feel like going to this league, we've made it to the top," said Steve Jensen, president of the RiverDawgs. "I don't know of a better wood-bat college program in the nation so we're excited about that."

Fifty-seven WCL players were selected in the recent major league baseball draft and the league has ties with the Pac-12 Conference, Mountain West Conference and Western Athletic Conference to help bolster their summer lineups. The quality of play and players stand to be considerably higher than anything the RiverDawgs have been able to be part of during their tenure.

Under the guidance of locals like Jensen, Jim McAbee and a grassroots campaign of several others, the RiverDawgs were formed in 2001 as a means for local college baseball players to be able to play in their hometown over the summer. The team started as an independent squad willing to play all comers — scheduling current WCL teams like the Corvallis Knights and Bend Elks because those were the teams it hoped to emulate — before joining a variety of lower level leagues over the years.

In its 11th season — the Dawgs took one year off following the demolition of Miles Field — the team is enjoying one of its best efforts as a member of the Far West League with a 13-5 record and one of the most complete lineups Southern Oregon has ever fielded. All five losses have come by a combined six runs and, thanks to solid recruiting, a handful of Dawgs very well could be part of WCL franchises this season.

"I'm happy to see that this group has that possibility of reaching that next level," said McAbee, who finished as one of the state's winningest baseball coaches during his service at Medford High. "Back when we started, that's kinda what we were shooting for. It's taken a while to get there but we've steadily worked at it and I think we've produced a good enough ballclub the last few years, combined with the community support, that the West Coast League thought that this was a good place to come. I think that says good things about all the factors since we started."

Jensen and McAbee said turning their college-level summer program over to Consolidated Sports Holdings International of Phoenix, Ariz., was simply the next logical step in the evolution of their brainchild.

"Like any startup organization, Jim and myself and all the other people who have helped over the years, we do it in our spare time and volunteer our time so we're all limited in what we can do," said Jensen. "I think we were coming close with the core group that we had and maxing out what we could do. This helps us all take this team to the top. I think there isn't a better brand in Oregon."

"The Cape Cod League, Alaska League and West Coast League, all three can be mentioned in the same sentence as the best of the best," he added. "If we can kinda step aside and let these other guys come in here with their expertise and run with it, that's just fine. None of us have a pride thing."

That said, instrumental figures like Jensen and McAbee, as well as Medford Youth Baseball Society president Gary Miller, are likely to be tapped for their local knowledge by CSH International. The Arizona-based group plans to staff two or three full-time figures with the new team as soon as possible to get the operational and marketing aspects up and running. The group also plans to form an advisory board for the new team and CSH International president Gary Gelinas said he hopes to convince the aforementioned trio to stay on board with the new team.

"Our intent is to only improve what's here," said Gelinas, whose company has owned and operated various minor league baseball and hockey franchises over the years. "We're making a financial commitment to upgrade the facilities (at Harry & David Field) so we obviously want this to work long-term. At the end of the day, all we're trying to do is make sure that the community can be proud of the facility, proud of the team that we're bringing here and have a venue that they want to come to, whether it be for baseball or other events."

"We just want to make it get to the next level and with our financial help and our expertise, I think we can do that," added Gelinas.

The next logical step for CSH International once hurdles with the City of Medford have been cleared on the lease at Harry & David Field and fundraising goals met to complete the seating at the ballpark will be a name-the-team contest. That's when it likely will set in once and for all that the RiverDawgs are no more for folks, but like Jensen said, it's only a name and the heart of the team remains the same.

"We'll be the RiverDawgs in spirit," said Jensen. "There's going to be a name change but we're proud that we were part of this whole thing. Whether the team's called something else, it started here and it still is what it is."

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