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Ready for the challenge

If there is one thing South Medford made clear during last year's Class 6A baseball season, it's that anything can happen when a team comes together and truly believes it has the recipe for success.

The Panthers were picked fifth in the preseason coaches' poll and needed to win their final conference game to simply secure a spot in the state playoffs as a No. 3 seed. The rest was pure magic, with South Medford turning away every challenge before falling one victory shy of the school's first-ever state title in baseball.

Such a showing should lend confidence to just about any team out there, it's just not something the Panthers are focusing on as they prepare for their Southern Oregon Hybrid opener Thursday against Grants Pass.

"We try not to talk a lot about last year," says second-year South coach Ray Smith. "We were very happy and proud of what we accomplished but I think these kids know that this is a different year and a different team. They saw how we got there and came together as a team toward the end of the year, and those are things that we're still talking about, but we can't be living in the past."

That's especially true given the company the Panthers keep in the SOH. The conference has seen South Medford and Roseburg finish as state 6A runner-up over the past two seasons, with North Medford winning it all in 2007. The return of a Crater program that was the 5A state champion in 2007 and topped the Black Tornado for the large-class title in 2000 only serves to make for even more prime competition in 2011.

"I would like to think that we'd be battling any team in this league (for a conference title) but it's going to be tough," adds Smith. "All the wins are going to be tough to come by."

Whether it was reservation on the Panthers' ability to build on their late-season run in 2010, or a respectful nod to Roseburg head coach Troy Thompson and his consistently strong program, the Indians were tabbed as the SOH favorites in this year's coaches' poll. South Medford was a close second, followed by Crater, North Medford and Grants Pass.

The top three finishers in the SOH will earn automatic placement in the 32-team state playoff bracket. The other two teams will face play-in contests to earn their spot in the playoffs.

"They're so well-coached and they're just so talented," Smith says of Roseburg. "They always find a way to fill the holes. I know they're missing some kids but the kids they've got coming back I'm fairly familiar with and I know Troy, he just does a great job every year."

The Indians graduated seven players who earned first-team all-conference acclaim last year, including five all-state honorees, but have a solid nucleus in second-team all-state pitcher Josh Graham, all-league outfielder Micah Audiss and a host of players eager to take up the challenge.

"It's a little bit different this year," says Thompson. "We've got some different names and some inexperienced kids, but inexperienced and talented is how I would term us right now in a number of spots. These guys are new at the varsity level but certainly not new to our program."

The Panthers appear as equipped as any to keep the Indians from at least a share of their third straight conference title. South Medford returns the heart of its pitching lineup from a year ago in seniors Sean Pearson and Andrew Phillips and left-handed juniors Nate Namanny and Austin Reames.

"Pitching and defense is going to be one of our strengths until we prove we can hit consistently against good pitching," says Smith.

Phillips earned the win in all of South's playoff games last year until Pearson secured the semifinal victory and was the subsequent starter in the title game. Phillips went 7-3 as a relief pitcher with a 2.98 ERA (1.56 in the playoffs) in only his second year of pitching after serving as the team's backup catcher.

Pearson and Namanny expect to head the top of the rotation, with Reames certainly showing he's a capable starter and Phillips calmly able to step into any situation. Pearson, Namanny and Reames played a part in helping the Medford Mustangs finish second in the state at the American Legion level last summer, and Smith hopes such an experience will carry over to this spring.

"If I can get those three guys to throw to anywhere near Mustangs-caliber baseball for us, then shoot, we'll be pretty good," says the coach. "We're going to see good things from those kids. They've got a hunger that they want to feed."

Senior shortstop Ryan Wellock was the Panthers' player of the game in the championship game loss to Clackamas a year ago and will anchor an infield that returns second baseman Bryson Lake from injury and Namanny at first base.

Lake was a key cog early last year for South before being sidelined by a shoulder injury.

"It's absolutely huge to have Bryson back," adds Smith. "The effort he puts in, and with his speed and aggressiveness at the top of the order, he makes plays kids don't normally make. Having him and Ryan Wellock up the middle, those two have worked through Little League and Babe Ruth playing side-by-side, so I think it's going to be a big year for those two kids."

The Panthers lost the bulk of their offensive leaders from a year ago and will need to have some players step up to help take some pressure off the pitching staff. South also will be without all-league player Josh Havird, who opted to forego his senior season.

Pounding out hits shouldn't be a concern in Central Point, where Crater returns several players who secured all-league honors at the 5A level, including senior standouts Bryce Crawford, Derek Cartwright and Andrew Tracy.

"We're real optimistic," says Crater coach Jay Campbell. "It's been a while since I've had a group that's worked as hard as these kids have. I think through the lineup we're going to put the ball in play and hopefully be tough outs at the plate and manufacture what we need to."

The Comets also boast a solid pitching combination of right-hander Zach Zelecki and lefty Juan Cortez at the top of their rotation.

For North Medford, the expectations are still high but the reality is the Black Tornado will be a work in progress throughout the season with only senior Jessie Hornbrook returning as a starter, and even that was as a designated hitter. Hornbrook moves to shortstop and will do some pitching this year, while senior catcher Cory Pine highlights a group that has waited for its turn at the varsity level.

"We're not going to go out there and dominate anybody like we have in the past with the pitchers and defense we had before," says North coach Brett Wolfe, "but our kids are very solid and believe in themselves and have been a part of this program for a while. We may struggle a little early but I think we'll be able to put it all together at the right time when things play out."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Senior pitchers Sean Pearson, left, and teammate Andrew Phillips return with hopes of leading South Medford on another deep postseason run.