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Comets aim high in Southern Sky

Jay Campbell admits he wouldn't mind if his Crater High baseball team was playing in the new Class 6A Southwest Conference instead of the 5A Southern Sky Conference.

With six starters intact from last season's team that went 17-10 and placed third in the old Southern Oregon Conference, the Comets might be among the 10 best teams in the state, regardless of classification. They're ranked No. 1 in the 5A coaches poll.

Not surprisingly, they're a unanimous choice to win the Southern Sky.

"It would have been OK with me to play the biggest schools around here because I know we'd compete with them," says Campbell, noting that Crater ambushed North Medford in two of three games last season and defeated Sheldon in a nonconference tilt. "It would have been fun, but we don't have any control over that. We just line up and play whoever's in the other dugout."

The Comets did have control of their nonconference schedule and Campbell entered his squad in a 30-team tournament in Fresno, Calif., early this week. Competing against schools with more than twice their enrollment, the Comets went 1-2-1 and were in every game.

"We easily could have won three of the four," Campbell says, "but it was still a great trip for the kids. We ran into some really good teams and we're hoping that helps us down the line."

As good as Crater is, the Comets, who enter league play with a 5-2-1 record, aren't a lock for the Southern Sky title. Ashland, picked second, also returns six starters and boasts a deep and talented pitching staff. Eagle Point, tabbed third, has won five of its seven nonconference games. Mazama, penciled in for fourth, won state titles in 1996, 2000 and 2003 and was the state runner-up to Henley in 2005.

And Klamath Union, though down in recent seasons, owns a rich tradition of its own, with state titles in 1975, 1979, 1983 and 1990.

Nonetheless, Crater is the team to beat.

The Comets' strength is an infield that returns four starters — senior catcher Charlie Reina, junior first baseman Zach Boskovich, senior second baseman Josh Surgeon and senior shortstop Cory Staniforth.

Reina, a four-year starter who was a first-team all-conference and third-team all-state selection a year ago, hits for average and power. Heading to Fresno, he was batting .417 had two early-season home runs, including a 400-foot blast at Anhorn Field that landed on the road in back of the stadium.

"Charlie hit over .400 last year, but he's a better hitter this year because he's more patient at the plate," Campbell says. "He's also a great catcher and he's taken on a leadership role."

The speedy Davis, meanwhile, got off to a blazing start. He was batting .692 with three triples, one double, one home run, seven RBIs and 10 runs scored before Crater left for California.

"He can beat you in so many ways," Campbell says of Davis. "He has great speed, good power and defensively, I think he's the best outfielder in the state. He gets great jumps (on the ball) and has a very strong arm."

Davis is being recruited by Oregon State and Long Beach State, Campbell notes.

Surgeon isn't as athletic as Reina or Davis, but he's the workhorse of the team, logging more hours in practice and in the off-season than anyone on the team.

"He's improved tremendously," says Campbell of the three-year starter who's batting .400. "He's made himself into a very good hitter by improving his fundamental swing, and defensively, he's just a very solid second baseman."

Staniforth, another three-year starter, anchors the shortstop position and bats in the clean-up spot, while Boskovich, the lone junior on the varsity, has moved from right field to first base. Boskovich also got off to a hot start, going 6-for-13 with a double, home run and six RBIs in Crater's first four games.

Outfielders Jesse Warren and Matt Hunt and designated hitter Tim Hill round out Crater's loaded lineup.

Pitching-wise, Chris Thomas is the undisputed ace. Despite standing just 5-foot-9 and weighing 150 pounds, Thomas is averaging more than a strikeout per inning thanks to a fall-off-the-table curveball, a tie-the-batter-in-knots changeup and a fastball that exceeds 80 mph.

Thomas had to settle for a 1-1 tie against Fresno High — there was a 21/2-hour time limit — at the Easter Baseball Classic Monday in Fresno but held the big California school to six hits over nine innings and struck out 10. Thomas handily won his first two games.

"Chris really struggled with his curveball last season, but he throws it consistently now and it's been almost unhittable," Campbell says. "He's got three pitches that he's confident in and can throw anywhere in the count. He's a lot more polished pitcher than he was a year ago."

Sean Ogle, a district champion wrestler who also threw impressively in California, looks to have emerged as Crater's No. 2 pitcher with Jake Ellis and Tyler Powell close behind.

The Comets open league play at home Saturday with a noon doubleheader against Mazama.

Campbell admits his team has sky-high expectations.

"I've coached most of these kids for two or three years and they're setting the bar high," Campbell says. "Obviously, we have a goal of winning the league, and we're hoping for a deep playoff run."

If any team in the Southern Sky is capable of upsetting the Comets' apple cart, it's Ashland. The Grizzlies return six starters and virtually all their pitching — including the 1-2 punch of Gus and Sam Gaviglio — from 2006.

"It's so nice to have so many pitchers back," says third-year Ashland coach Don Senestraro, noting that the Southern Sky will play doubleheaders on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Sophomore Charlie Sebrell and junior Tyler Killeen, a left-hander, figure to log ample innings behind the Gaviglios, and Senestraro won't be afraid to summon 6-4, 180-pound sophomore Garrett Tygerson from the bullpen.

The Grizzlies are also a capable team offensively — they're batting .313 through eight games and romped to a 10-0 victory over previously unbeaten Phoenix on Tuesday. Second baseman Tyson Senestraro — son of the coach — catcher Lewis Sebrell and Charlie Sebrell are all off to hot starts with the bat.

Eagle Point returns just two starters, but the Eagles edged out Mazama for third place in the coaches poll.

Senior pitcher and third baseman Logan Fosenburg leads the Eagles, who have displayed team cohesiveness and an ability to win close games in winning five of their seven nonconference contests.

Only two teams will advance to the 5A state playoffs.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com

Crater catcher Charlie Reina, right, is a four-year starter who earned third-team all-state honors last season. - Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli