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Mustangs take momentum into state tourney

The Medford Mustangs aren't taking the program's best record to the American Legion AAA state tournament this week.

But they do have history on their side.

Medford has a 27-20 season record, the first time since 1987 the team has recorded that many losses, but it still managed to win the Salem Super Regional on Sunday to keep alive its remarkable postseason legacy.

The Mustangs have played in the past six state title games — winning two, the last in 2008 — and have claimed 11 state championships.

They'll be making their ninth consecutive state appearance when they open play at 3:30 p.m. today against Alpenrose Dairy (21-13) of Portland. The eight-team tournament is at Concordia University in Portland and runs through Sunday.

"We've got a lot of work in front of us," said Medford manager Nate Mayben. "There's a lot of good teams there."

The Mustangs were third in Area 4 play behind the Grants Pass Nuggets and Eugene Challengers. The latter two are also in the field.

"Those are two of the favorites to win this thing," said Mayben, whose team was 2-6 against its league brethren and had a 4-9 mark against the tourney field. Alpenrose is the lone state entrant the Mustangs haven't played this summer.

"Once you get to this point in the season," said Mayben, "it's the team that is playing the best at that time, and I think we have some guys who can get the job done. We don't come up here with guys who are just happy to be here. We have to take care of business, but every time we step on the field, we expect to win."

Grant Pass plays the Gerding Builders of Corvallis at 9 a.m. to open the tournament, and Eugene takes on the Salem Withnell Dodgers at 12:15 p.m. In the day's final game at 7 p.m., host Northwest Star Academy of Portland faces the Springfield Titans.

Alpenrose has seven players off Wilson High's Class 5A state championship team. But manager Mike Clopton downplayed the strength of his team. It comes in with four straight losses but got an automatic bid because its area winner, Northwest Star Academy, was already in as host.

"We don't have the luxury of having the experience of the people who were in super regionals," said Clopton. "We'll be a little rusty."

That Medford comes in with 20 losses is misleading, said Clopton, who is Wilson's head coach.

"There's a great tradition down there," said the 5A coach of the year this past spring. "Three of the (state) teams are in that league. (Area 4) has always been the hotbed, the strongest of all the Legion leagues — at least over the 40 or so years I've been around. The atmosphere of baseball in your community is much different than ours. Legion baseball is important for the community, it's special, well respected and the best players in your community want to play. We don't see that."

Indeed, the Portland area is divided into two primary programs, with 32 prep teams forming the Oregon Independent Baseball Association and siphoning players from long-standing Legion programs.

According to stories in recent days in The Oregonian, critics contend the process has weakened the level of play in and around the state's largest city.

Alpenrose is led by shortstop Austin Andrews, an all-state infielder, and starting pitchers Gerhett Moser, Zack Entrikin and Philip Blatt. It was last in the state tournament two years ago. It's lone title came in 1989.

Medford answers with its own 5A all-state player in pitcher Jamie Flynn, from Ashland, who will get the start today. Flynn is 5-3 with a 1.64 ERA. He has 54 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 47 innings.

Nate Namanny will follow in Thursday's second game. He's 4-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 56 innings, the most by a Mustangs hurler. He has 41 strikeouts.

"After that, we'll see where we are," said Mayben.

He also can turn to Colton Westfall (5-1, 2.92) and Christian Morrison (3-6, 4.14) and relievers Austin Doolittle (3-1, 1.29) and Charlie Walker (3-1, 1.94).

The Mustangs have a 3.30 team ERA and have allowed only four home runs.

"Our pitching has been fairly solid," said Mayben.

The defense committed only two errors in the super regional, and the offense showed signs of life as well.

The Mustangs' team average is .285, or .103 lower than last summer, and they've hit eight home runs versus 39 a year ago. The hitting decline, in power numbers especially, can be attributed to bats in use this year that are far less lively.

Walker leads Medford with a .388 average and has team highs of 46 runs and 15 stolen bases.

Ethan Schlecht and Billy Hansen are each hitting .372, with three home runs apiece, and they are one-two in RBIs with 44 and 43, respectively.

Jessie Hornbrook (.297) and Namanny (.293) have also been consistent.

"We played really well at the super regional," said Mayben. "Things are starting to come together for us. We're pretty fortunate to be playing still. Somebody's got to win this thing, why not us?

"We just have to continue to build on what we did last week."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Medford's Nate Namanny will take a 4-4 record with a 2.61 ERA into his start on Thursday at the state tournament. - MT file photo