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Uncertain future awaits Mustangs

More than any other year during his tenure with the Medford Mustangs, ninth-year manager Nate Mayben isn’t really sure what to expect from his American Legion baseball team this summer.

A healthy turnover from a Mustangs roster that extended Oregon’s record streak of state championships to five last year brings natural question marks, along with the fact that Medford boasts one of its youngest lineups in years with only one collegiate returner among its six overall.

Medford has won 13 of the last 28 state titles and 16 overall.

“It’s a little bit different than years past, there’s no question,” Mayben said of preparing for the 2019 campaign, which began with Tuesday’s nonleague season opener against Roseburg Dr. Stewart’s.

“Going into my ninth year, I don’t think we’ve ever had this many new players on our team for the first time,” he added. “Usually we’re returning eight, nine or maybe 10 guys, and this time we had to add 10 guys. It will be interesting to see how these guys come together this summer.”

Mayben’s uncertainty about his ballclub, however, should not be confused with hesitation regarding their ability.

With leading players from South Medford, North Medford, Ashland and Eagle Point high schools at his disposal, there is no lack of faith when it comes to who he calls upon this summer.

“I think we have a lot to learn about ourselves, and that’s OK,” said Mayben. “Are the expectations going to be to go to a state tournament and play for a state championship? That’s kind of our goal every year and what we want guys to aspire to do as a team.”

“We’ve had a lot of tradition and sometimes that stuff will help you get over some of the growing pains,” he added. “Hopefully the six returners we have will be able to lead us in that direction and have those expectations of preparing ourselves to be successful.”

Medford went 41-12 last season and advanced to the Northwest Regionals for a fifth straight summer as state champion. While many of the marquee names from that bunch are gone, the Mustangs return several players who played key roles, especially in their late-season push, in Dylan Marsh, Ryan Sandoval, Brady Buchanan, Rickey Boortz, Zac Ankeny and Bennett Thompson.

“All those returners are going to play a big role on our team this year,” said Mayben. “They all did some good things at times for us last year but they’re going to have to step it up this summer and be more consistent.”

Marsh is the lone college-level player returning to the fold. He spent last year at Lassen College before transferring to Umpqua Community College, which restored its baseball program under head coach Jeremiah Robbins and will begin play in earnest in the 2019-20 school year. The Eagle Point product batted .262 last summer with 20 runs and 33 RBIs and expects to split time between third base and pitching duties after going 2-0 with a 1.62 ERA in limited action.

Sandoval and Buchanan were each seniors at North Medford High this past school year, while Ankeny was a junior and Boortz a senior at South Medford.

Sandoval expects to be one of Medford’s top pitchers as well as roam center field when not on the mound, while Buchanan will also see split duties on the mound as well as in left field. Ankeny will get the nod to start at shortstop with his experience in the field, and Boortz is expected to compete for one of the top starting pitcher roles after logging the second-most innings for Medford in 2018.

Last summer, Boortz went 7-2 with a 2.91 ERA in 57.2 innings, while Sandoval went 3-1 with a 3.37 ERA in 35.1 innings and Buchanan was 1-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 26.1 innings. Buchanan also batted .260 with 20 runs and 11 RBIs, while Ankeny hit .252 with 29 runs and 30 RBIs. Sandoval saw only 36 at-bats but had two home runs and one double among his six hits.

“Ryan had some games where he was lights out this spring, even in that playoff game that (North Medford) lost,” said Mayben. “He came on strong for us at the end last year and we’re hoping he picks right up where he left off. The same with Rickey. I liked how he finished up last year so hopefully he can start there and improve on that.”

Thompson was the Mustangs’ youngest player on the roster last season but put in valuable time behind the plate at catcher, batting .291 with 20 runs and 12 RBIs on the occasions when he got to hit for himself. After just wrapping up his sophomore season at South Medford, where Thompson was a leading figure offensively and with shared duties on the mound and at catcher, Thompson will be tasked with carrying a similarly heavy load in Year 2 for the Mustangs.

“We’re really excited to have Bennett back,” said Mayben. “We’ve always seemed to have pretty good catchers but this kid is something special. With just what he does behind the plate, his knowledge of the game, his ability to read hitters and work with pitchers and his ability to catch and throw, they’re all positives. He’s a young guy but he’s going to be in a leadership role for us this year.”

All the roles, however, are up in the air given the level of competition for playing time that expects to come from Medford’s newest players.

“There’s a lot of question marks and a lot of guys that need to prove themselves because we’ve got guys ready to come up behind them chomping at the bit,” said Mayben. “It’s going to be a dogfight within our own team. I think we have a lot of guys that are really, really even right now. They’re all working hard and they all have ability so we’re going to be switching some things around and playing around with our lineup a lot early on. Guys are going to get a chance to earn spots.”

Ashland first baseman/pitcher Evan McLennan and Eagle Point pitcher Skyler Gaudern stand out as potentially key contributors, along with North Medford’s Josh Baptiste (utility) and Jeremiah Huffman (second base), South Medford’s Steven Ledendecker (utility), Chase Costanti (middle infield) and Blake Shields (pitcher) and Eagle Point’s Darin Marsh (right field), Dylan’s younger brother.

South Medford first baseman Bennett Smith and North Medford catcher Taven Passey also will be in prime position to take over for McLennan and Thompson, respectively, when they take the mound a lot this summer.

The one element that appears somewhat lacking this summer for Medford is in raw power.

Last year’s squad belted out 27 home runs with 83 doubles and 13 triples, and a year before the Mustangs had 21 homers with 126 doubles and 23 triples. This year’s group seems built more on speed and ability to spray the ball around the field.

“We were pretty spoiled last year and the years before that,” said Mayben, “but this team’s going to have to learn to win a different way, and that’s OK. We’re definitely going to have to execute our small-ball approach and have quality, productive at-bats. We’re not going to be able to sit back and rely on the couple doubles in a row or hitting one out to score a few runs. We’re going to have to produce them, we’re going to have to be a smart baseball team.”

None of that change concerns Mayben, who has always adopted a mentality that you take advantage of what you have and build from that.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s going to be a little bit different style of baseball but we still expect them to approach the game the same way: work hard and play hard every day. This team is definitely going to have to grind it out but I think they can do it.”

Mustangs single-game tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors. Season tickets cost $25.

For more info, including Medford’s summer schedule, go to www.ballcharts.com/medfordmustangs

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMedford's Ryan Sandoval delivers a pitch in the third inning Tuesday at Harry & David Field.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMedford's Evan McLennan gets a base hit Tuesday at Harry & David Field. McLennan is one of several new faces looking to make an impact for Medford this summer.