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Red-hot Mustangs charge on to regional

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Medford opens ‘tough’ Northwest Regional on Wednesday with guarded optimism

Seven years have passed since the Medford Mustangs last got to call themselves Northwest Regional champions.

It’s the hope of 12th-year Mustangs manager Nate Mayben and his red-hot American Legion AAA crew that such a statement doesn’t linger after this week in Gillette, Wyoming.

“You’re here so you’ve got the opportunity to win it,” said Mayben of his team’s chances in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament. “There’s just so many things that go into it, though, you need a little bit of luck to go your way.”

“You need your bats to be hot,” he added, “because out of these eight teams somebody’s bats are going to get hot, and you hope that’s you. We definitely have the capability to do that. And obviously you need your pitching to be competitive and your defense to be good. We’ve done all those things throughout the year, so why not us?”

Why not indeed.

A five-time regional champion, Medford (37-7) will open pursuit of its first title since 2015 at 11:30 a.m. (Pacific) Wednesday when the Mustangs square off against Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak in a battle of two teams peaking at the right time.

The Northwest Regional runs Wednesday through Sunday, with a link to results and a livestream of games at americanlegion.sportngin.com.

Yakima Valley (38-6) secured its fourth state title since 2017 and eighth overall last week in the Washington state championships, scoring double-digit runs in each contest to outscore its five opponents 58-11. The Pak has won 11 straight games entering Wednesday’s contest at Hladky Memorial Stadium, and is a somewhat familiar entity as Medford’s opening opponent in the 2018 regional under manager Mike Archer.

“They’ve been a consistent team getting back here (to the Northwest Regional),” said Mayben, “and we’ve played them before in the regular season, too. I think they’ve gotten the upper-hand more times than we have and they’re going to be tough. They had a great run at their state tournament, I think they 10-runned every team that they played, so they look to be a powerhouse.”

The same perspective could be pinned on the Mustangs, who claimed the 18th state title in program history and seventh in the last eight attempts last week by outscoring its five foes 45-15 in Roseburg.

“Everybody’s playing well, hopefully we can keep it going,” said Mayben. “Having a week off, you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it works in your favor because guys get refreshed, sometimes it doesn’t. You never know. You do the best you can to prepare them, and we’ll see how they go out and perform.”

“Definitely those last two days of the state tournament we were crushing the baseball and hitting it really well,” he added. “We had really good at-bats and really good approaches. That first day will be a really good indicator of are we going to continue that or are we going to have to kind of regenerate it and get it going again.”

Medford will likely see Yakima Valley ace Steven Johnson, who won twice during the Washington state tourney and anchors a staff that has combined for 11 shutouts. The right-hander pitched a three-hitter in the Pak’s state tournament opener and came back to allow three runs and seven hits during his 5 ²⁄³ innings in the championship game.

The Mustangs counter with a pitching staff that has combined for a 2.39 ERA this summer, led by Tanner Douglas (7-0, 1.90 ERA), Cody Borraggine (5-2, 0.97), Owen Thompson (8-1, 2.68), Beau Aldrich (6-2, 2.35), Julius Bolstad (6-0, 3.16) and Cameron Sewell (3-2, 2.63).

“Our pitching staff has just been so consistent all year,” said Mayben.

Offensively for Yakima Valley, center fielder Adam Goodrich was named tourney MVP after going 3-for-4 with five RBIs in the championship game in Spokane, Washington. Goodrich drove in 10 runs during the tourney, striking out only once.

The Pak boasts a deep lineup of hitters that also includes second baseman Ryker Fortier, who had multi-hit games in all five state encounters, catcher Grant Chapman (3-for-4 in the final), shortstop Drew Johnson and Cade Gibson, who had seven hits and seven RBIs at state.

Medford’s hitting prowess was on full display last week in its own state tourney, posting 14 runs in each of its final games and 16 hits overall in a championship tilt that saw every starter get at least one hit.

There were no official MVPs announced in Roseburg but Mustangs third baseman Jace Miller likely would have been the pick after the recent South Medford graduate continued his tear to boost his team-leading batting average to .511 with 43 runs and 52 RBIs.

Miller recently decommitted from Central Washington after a coaching change and was quickly scooped up by the University of Portland baseball program.

“You see guys get hot for a couple weeks and hit the baseball and then kind of cool off,” said Mayben, “but Jace has just been going all year. It’s been impressive.

“What he’s done this summer has given him an opportunity to go play Division I baseball.”

Borraggine (.416, 64 runs, 31 RBIs) has also been instrumental in early offense from the leadoff spot, with left fielder Aiden Horsley (.421, 28 RBIs), first baseman Tanner Douglas (.382, 49 runs, 46 RBIs) and right fielder Cameron Sewell (.370, 61 runs, 53 RBIs) also contributing mightily to a Medford team that is batting .362 overall.

Catcher Jeremiah Robbins (.305, 36 RBIs) also came up clutch with key hits during the tournament run, as did the Mustangs’ entire lineup, really, after churning out one quality at-bat after another.

Medford will need that to continue if it hopes to make an extended run in a regional that includes two-time defending national champion Idaho Falls, which opens the tourney against Colorado champion Fort Collins.

Wednesday’s other matchups include Alaska champion Eagle River against Wyoming champion Cheyenne and host Gillette against Montana champion Billings.

“It’s going to be tough, there’s some good teams back here this year,” said Mayben. “Obviously every year is tough, but just looking at some of the teams that are here and the history of the programs, there’s some good ones. This should be a tough tournament.”

The Mustangs went 2-2 in their last regional trip in 2019, and had the Idaho Falls Bandits on the ropes earlier this summer at 4-all until a costly error in the sixth led to a 10-4 loss on June 25.

“I think it helps our boys in the sense of overall confidence,” Mayben said of the Coach K Memorial Classic game against the Bandits. “They got us, obviously, but knowing that you can compete with those guys and what it actually looks like is big for their confidence. They know they’re going to have to play well if they want a chance to beat them and the other teams here, too, but I think it just brings a reality to it of, hey, these guys still have to hit the ball and still have to pitch the ball just like we do.”

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford Mustangs starting pitcher Tanner Douglas tosses the ball underhand to first base for an out during the third inning of the state championship game last week in Roseburg.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMedford Mustangs third baseman Jace Miller makes a play to first base for an out against Humboldt during the Coach K Memorial Classic.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford Mustangs left fielder Aiden Horsley connects for a double during the seventh inning of the state championship game last week in Roseburg.