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State champion Mustangs gear up for regionals

There was only one thing wrong with the Medford Mustangs wrapping up Sunday’s American Legion AAA state tournament in historic fashion: they didn’t get much time to celebrate.

One day after becoming the first program to claim a fourth straight state title — Medford’s 15th overall — the Mustang players and coaches were frantically getting things in order to exit town once again Tuesday en route to the Northwest Regionals in Missoula, Montana.

“It’s definitely a quick turnaround here,” said Mustangs manager Nate Mayben. “It would be really nice if we had maybe one or two more days between the state tourney and regionals just to be able to get back and maybe actually enjoy it a little bit. But it’s an exciting time for us and for the guys.”

“The guys that were there last year are jacked and they’re ready to go and want to finish something they had an opportunity last year to do,” he added, “and the newer guys have heard all the stories and are right there with them.”

Last year, Medford advanced to the championship game but lost 10-1 to Kennewick, Washington. The Mustangs were seeking a spot in the American Legion World Series for a second straight year.

The Mustangs (36-10-1) will look to take their first step toward a potential sixth regional crown at 11:30 a.m. PDT Wednesday when they take on a familiar foe in Cheyenne Post 6 of Wyoming. It will be the third straight year these teams will meet in the regionals, with Medford winning 5-4 in 2015 and 11-1 in eight innings last year.

“They’re always a really solid program,” said Mayben. “They’re a lot like us in the sense that their players are committed, they work hard and play the game hard and they just always have a lot of talent. It will be a tough first game for us.”

The double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday at Ogren Park, which is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league affiliate Missoula Osprey. Live streaming of the tournament can be found online at mpsn406.com, with tournament info at nwregionalsmissoula.com

The Mustangs have won seven straight and 10 of their last 12 heading into the eight-team event, which features state champions from Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and the host team, Missoula Mavericks.

This past week in Klamath Falls, the Mustangs experienced their share of ups and downs — including roaring back from a 7-0 deficit to win 19-7 on Day 3 — but kept the faith during a determined 5-0 tourney run.

“If we can stay composed the way that we did for those last two or three games, especially, that we played over there,” said Mayben, “and just keep our calm and have fun playing the game then I think we have a good chance this week. We’ve come back from a lot of deficits this year so I think these guys have a lot of belief in themselves and believe that they’re never really out of the game. We have a lot of hitters and a lot of guys who always believe we can get it done.”

State tournament MVP Cole Carder, who joined Tate Cowden in winning his third straight title, was one of many Mustangs who stepped up during last week’s run. The center fielder batted .478 with 10 runs and 10 RBIs and three home runs. Carder was also instrumental in Medford’s defensive effort.

“He came up in some pretty clutch situations and obviously pushed some runs across that were important,” said Mayben, “but he also made some big plays in the outfield. The diving catch he made in the middle of that (championship game Sunday) was bases loaded, two outs and a full count with everybody running. It could’ve been three runs easily right there; that saved the game for us at that point.”

“Not only offensively has he been impressive,” he added, “but defensively he’s done a great job. He’s a big part of why we are going where we’re going.”

As has been the case all summer, Carder was far from alone in sparking a Medford attack that accumulated a team batting average of .405 and scored 70 runs at state.

Nick Sanderson hit .600 with 11 runs and six RBIs and also posted a pitching victory to finish right in line with Carder for potential MVP honors, while Jacob Melton hit .500 with 10 runs and nine RBIs and Berry Hunt batted .391 with six runs and 10 RBIs and also earned two pitching wins.

“After that second inning against the Dallas Dirtbags on Day 3, we were playing some really good baseball,” said Mayben. “We were just crushing the baseball. I think we were playing to our capabilities at that point.”

Where there is room for improvement moving forward is on the mound, where the Mustangs have shown flashes of brilliance but also suffered through too many setbacks keyed from free passes. In five games at the state tourney, Medford pitchers struck out 38 but walked 34 and hit five batters to go with a 3.73 ERA, lowered a bit by 13 fielding errors.

“The part that we need to clean up and the part that gets us to play our best baseball is our pitching staff,” said Mayben. “If our pitching staff can just not give up free bases, we’re going to be tough to beat with the hitters we have. That’s been our Achilles’ heel all season but I have total confidence in the guys we have that they can get it done.”

NOTES: Medford’s state title this past week was historic not only for the Mustangs program but throughout Legion AAA record keeping. While an available list showed Portland had won six straight state titles from 1943-48 and four straight from 1935-38 — the only area to win more than three in a row — those victories were not earned by one program. Instead, four different Portland teams won in the most recent stretch and three different ones prevailed in the mid-1930s. The Mustangs, who have now won 12 of the last 27 state titles, previously won three straight from 1991-93.

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

Berry Hunt and the Medford Mustangs are set for the American Legion Northwest Regionals in Missoula, Montana. At the state tournament, Hunt batted .391 with 10 RBIs and six runs scored, and he picked up a pair of wins on the mound. [JOAQUIN AGUILAR-FLORES/FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]