Mustangs exit with heads high
Save those consolatory phone calls or text messages. The Medford Mustangs don’t need them.
When you reach your goal of playing on the final day of the American Legion AAA state tournament, and have fun doing it in the process, there’s really nothing to feel discouraged about.
Sure, Medford (46-12) was a hit here or a bounce there away from potentially extending its own record and claiming a seventh straight state championship, but that didn’t pan out.
It may not make sense to outsiders, but it’s really nothing anyone in the program is stewing over days after the Mustangs lost 6-2 to a very deserving Eugene team in Wednesday’s championship final, according to 11th-year Mustangs manager Nate Mayben.
“It was a good season,” said Mayben. “I had probably more fun than I’ve ever had with a group of guys. This group of kids were fun to be around every single day, and we were around each other every single day it seemed like. They worked hard, they bought in, they played for each other and they had a fun time doing it the entire time. There wasn’t a single day I sat back and was not looking forward to going to the ballpark.”
“That’s always our goal, to be playing on that final day and give ourselves a chance to win a state championship and move on to the next round,” he added. “We’ve been there at the end obviously a lot of times but I don’t know if that’s the determination of our success for the year.”
While there was disappointment, for sure, when the Area 4 champions couldn’t tack on that one extra win and move on again to the Pacific Northwest regionals, there wasn’t really a sense of anyone hanging their heads among the Mustangs faithful.
“It was never about keeping the streak alive with these guys,” said Mayben. “It was about them, and just giving them their best shot to go out and experience every day the successes to hopefully get yourself in a position to be where they were. We as a club didn’t talk about six or seven (state titles in a row) all summer, honestly. We heard it from everybody else once we showed up at the state tournament but I really don’t think that affected these guys one bit. I think our guys did a great job of just focusing on getting there and just seeing what happens.”
What did happen provided memories for a lifetime, for Mayben and the players alike.
It took a test of mettle and some lockdown pitching by Gavin Schmidt to rally for a 4-1 victory over Beaverton in last Saturday’s opener.
A day later, Cody Borraggine was equally efficient in shutting out the Hillsboro Barbers in a 10-0 win that saw Jace Miller absolutely crush a momentum-building three-run home run.
The biggest turning point for the week came on Day 3, where the Mustangs could’ve put themselves in the driver’s seat for Wednesday’s championship day but inexplicably saw a 9-2 lead wiped away by Eugene in the final 2 1/2 innings for a 10-9 comeback.
“That probably was the biggest factor in the whole thing,” said Mayben of dictating the tournament outcome. “That gave (Eugene) the hope and belief that they needed to come back the next two days and do what they did.”
“Had we taken care of business, I think we had an opportunity early in that game to actually 10-run them,” added the coach. “I think we left about five or six guys on base even in the first three innings of that game.
“If we could’ve put them away in five and not even let them get to that sixth and seventh inning, it would’ve probably been a little different story. Obviously then they would’ve had to use some different pitching and it would’ve put us in the driver’s seat, but the same thing happened for us two years ago. We pulled out a seventh-inning comeback in that game and went on to set ourselves up to win, so those things happen. It’s not like we lost that game, they just came back and won it.”
Medford’s test of character didn’t end there, situations only grew more intense, but not at the expense of quality play by the Mustangs.
A 6-5, 12-inning win over host Roseburg in Medford’s first elimination game was brimming with big efforts, from Eli Westrick’s 6 1/3 innings of scoreless relief pitching, Zac Ankeny’s wizardry on defense at shortstop to Tanner Douglas’ clutch walk-off winner to plate Darin Marsh from second base.
“Those 6 1/3 innings Westrick put up against Roseburg, that’s stuff that you talk about for a long time,” said Mayben. “Coming back and not pitching for a month and a half and doing what he did against a good Roseburg team, I’ll remember that for a long time.”
“But probably the guy I’ll remember the most from this week obviously was Ankeny defensively,” said Mayben. “You couldn’t ask for a better defensive shortstop performance. We’ve had some great ones with the Mustangs (at shortstop) and he’s right there with them. Defensively he was phenomenal.”
“He just made every play,” he added. “You’d call him a big-game player but the thing is he got after it in every game. It didn’t matter what the situation was, if it was a mid-week game against a nonleague opponent or at the state tournament, he played defense and I’ll remember him for a long time.”
Even with those efforts by Medford’s veteran returners, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who had a more complete state tournament than Borraggine, who followed up his five-inning shutout of Hillsboro with another complete-game effort over the Barbers in a 3-1 win that put the Mustangs into another title game.
The Barbers’ only losses of the state tournament came against Borraggine and the Mustangs, and it was Hillsboro’s win over Eugene Tuesday that created a three-team scramble Wednesday.
“He was phenomenal; I couldn’t have asked for more,” said Mayben of the left-hander. “And the crazy thing was going into that tournament, he was kind of the one guy we’re looking at going, ‘OK, this guy’s capable, but he hasn’t put up the numbers.’ He struggled a little bit and he proved to us that he was more than capable. He was great on the mound up in Roseburg.”
Borraggine was equally impactful in the leadoff position and in center field defensively.
“He set the table for us plenty of times,” said Mayben. “I just wish we could’ve turned the lineup around more often to get him up to bat. He was great in the outfield, too. The guy tracked down stuff all day. He was our spark plug, for sure. I don’t think anybody else had a better tournament all around.”
Stringing hits together to turn the lineup over has been a Medford staple during its run of titles, which dated back to 2014 after last year’s tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. That wasn’t quite the case this past week.
“That was our Achilles’ heel for sure,” said Mayben. “I’ve had teams go into that tournament and you just go, ‘Geez, where did this hitting come from?’ And then we had this team in the tournament and you go, ‘Man, where did our hitting go?’ Honestly though, I think that the pitching this year in that state tournament was really good and had a lot to do with that.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to be on a lot of times and that’s what it takes to win these things, but offensively we just weren’t quite there even though we still gave ourselves a chance to win it with pitching and defense.”
For the summer, Westrick wound up leading the Mustangs with a .476 batting average to go with 52 runs and 59 RBIs, while Borraggine hit .409 with 59 runs and 39 RBIs and Douglas batted .402 with team-highs of 66 runs and 63 RBIs.
Aiden Horsley (.392, 36 runs, 42 RBIs), Schmidt (.372, 22 runs, 28 RBIs), Marsh (.360, 65 runs, 31 RBIs), Jeremiah Robbins (.356, 21 runs, 30 RBIs) and Miller (.341, 38 runs, 57 RBIs) all played prominent roles offensively throughout the summer.
On the mound, North Medford products Schmidt and Borraggine logged the most innings at 63 2/3 and 61 2/3, respectively, with Schmidt going 7-2 with a 2.31 ERA and Borraggine 6-4 with a 3.63 ERA.
Trey Newmann (7-1, 3.66 ERA) and Douglas (7-1, 3.11 ERA) were also instrumental after injuries cut into the availability of Westrick (5-0, 0.88 ERA) and AJ Balsiger (3-1, three saves, 1.74 ERA).
While roster turnover will cut into Medford’s overall experience, a host of the Mustangs’ leading figures — especially on the mound — are expected to return for another state title bid next year. The Mustangs have won 17 championships overall, earning their 14th state title in a 29-year span in 2019.
“I’ve been sitting here for an hour looking at next year’s lineups and pitching staff, and who’s coming back and who’s potentially out there,” Mayben said with a laugh Friday morning. “I’m telling you right now, we’re not going away … we’ll be back.”
“I’m already excited,” he added. “I’m sitting here looking at a spreadsheet with a potential lineup for next year that also includes some guys that weren’t part of the program this year but I know are out there. We’re not going anywhere, we’ll be right back there competing.”
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