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Tornado on top

If you truly are gauged by the company you keep, then the baseball programs in the Southwest Conference certainly have good reason to hold their heads high entering the 2015 campaign.

Much can be made of the fact that two SWC teams — North Medford and Sheldon — played in last year’s Class 6A state championship game and are the last two teams to hoist the first-place trophy in Oregon.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The Southwest Conference has advanced at least one of its teams to the 6A title game in six of the last eight years, earning three titles. If you also count Thurston’s presence at the 5A level, only one time since 2007 has a program from this year’s grouping not played for a state championship.

And the representation has been vast thanks to efforts by North Medford, Roseburg, South Medford, Sheldon and Thurston.

“I’m very excited about this league,” said Roseburg head coach Troy Thompson. “The addition of the Eugene-area schools coming back in helps make the quality of baseball second to none. It’s the only league that can say they have two returning state champions playing in the same league, and that says something. Up and down the league it’s going to be very competitive and very tough, especially with the 21-game schedule we have and those (Saturday) doubleheaders that play a huge role.”

With six returning starters off last year’s championship team, including the winning pitcher in the final game in senior Colton Westfall, North Medford was a unanimous pick as the favorite for this year’s SWC title in preseason voting by the conference’s coaches. The Black Tornado received all seven possible first-place votes for 49 points, with Sheldon picking up the other first-place vote to go with second-place nods across the board for 43 points.

North Medford edged Sheldon, 3-2, in last year’s final and, although comfortable in the role of favorite, isn’t about to take anything for granted.

“Baseball is the strangest game I know,” said Tornado head coach Brett Wolfe. “The best team doesn’t always win it. It doesn’t always rely on strength and tenacity, it relies on finesse and execution.”

North Medford appears to have most factors taken care of, beyond the notion of integrating a few new faces into the mix. The talent is there, but Wolfe cautioned that time will be the most telling part as the group prepares for a potentially deep run in the state playoffs.

“It takes a little bit to put a team together and then build a little bit of knowledge on how all your parts work,” said Wolfe, who owns a 420-138-1 career record. “We have a lot of returning experience and I like our players’ work ethic and their desire to get better.”

Westfall is in his fourth year as a fixture in the Tornado rotation and is coming off another all-state season in which he posted a 13-2 record and 1.58 ERA. He’ll have a little more on his plate this year as the starting shortstop but he’s a very capable athlete.

Complementing Westfall are fellow seniors Jordan Ragan, who earned a playoff victory last year and was one of the bright spots during the recent Las Vegas Tournament; Josh Berman, who was an all-state honorable mention pick after hitting .349 with 19 RBIs and 11 runs in 2014; Jared Evans, who hit over .300 last year and was 2-for-3 with one run and two RBIs in the state championship; and Troy Fowler, who hit .354 with 12 runs and 13 RBIs last year.

Junior Tate Cowden also returns to the starting lineup at second base and was joined by varsity newcomers Greyson Wolff, Honus Kindreich, Mason Barone, Kasey Buchanan, Preston Johnson, Dakota Adams and Larson Kindreich in sparking the American Legion A affiliate to a state title and spot in the Northwest Regionals last summer.

“We’ve always predicated everything we do on pitching and defense because those things are the name of the game,” said Wolfe. “If you don’t have pitching and you can’t play defense, you make it hard on yourself because can’t just outscore that many teams.”

Sheldon

The Irish are similarly flush with returning talent, although the pitching staff is still in development after graduating its ace off last year’s staff. Junior Justin Herbert will be asked to shoulder the load on the mound after going 3-0 with two saves and a 2.07 ERA last year. Senior Taylor Frost, a key cog in a potent young batting order, will also help power the rotation with senior Wyatt Johnson.

Seniors Kellen Strahm and Justus Adams and sophomores Matt Land and Sam Olsson return to a speedy starting lineup that will boast five sophomores overall.

Sophomores Zach Diehl, Tanner Zenke and Cameron Wong will need to have a short learning curve for the Irish to contend for a league title and beyond.

Strahm, Frost, Olsson, Adams and Land each hit over .325 last year, with Frost belting eight home runs and none of the group finishing with less than 16 RBIs.

Grants Pass

There is definite confidence in the Grants Pass dugout that the Cavemen are primed for a major leap in the standings this spring after finishing last with only six wins overall last year.

A healthy Easton Bents returns to bolster the batting lineup and, after missing a year in the field due to a shoulder injury, will help anchor the defense at shortstop. Fellow junior Cody Ekwall is a returning top pitcher and offensive threat.

The junior-heavy lineup also includes returning starters Kadin Lopez, Jake Stoffel and Jaron Kroplin. Sophomore Logan Zozaya also returns to the infield.

Juniors Brennen Lauffenburger and Chris D’Amico join senior Josh D’Amico in backing up Ekwall on the bump.

“We’re still that young club but it’s almost like they’re all seniors since some of these guys have been up since their freshman year with me,” said GP head coach Brian Diatte. “We’ve been taking our lumps but we’re hoping it’s our turn now.”

Roseburg

Coming off its first losing season since 1977, Roseburg will look to make last year a distant memory thanks to the return of senior starter David Irvine (fourth-year regular) and juniors Chris Stone (pitcher/outfielder) and Chance Beecher (center fielder).

Irvine was a little off his usual offensive capabilities last year but has already signed with the University of Washington, while Stone hit over .350 last year and also gained valuable experience in the starting rotation.

Beecher, Will Reddekopp and Isaac Hartwick will be joined on the mound by sophomores Brett Jackson — the lone southpaw — and Treven Jacks to provide good pitching depth.

South Medford

Inexperience at the varsity level is the biggest hurdle for South Medford to overcome, with only seniors Ryan Carle and Will Cooney and junior Cole Carder returning to the lineup. Carle was a second-team all-conference utility player one year ago, while Carder received a second-team nod at shortstop.

Carle will be tasked with helping bolster a bullpen that’s as inexperienced as it gets, with juniors Hunter Bradford and Matt DeVries joining freshmen Jack Thompson and Brandon Letendre in seeing their first varsity action.

The 6-foot-8 Bradford carries the biggest question mark — and upside — for the Panthers. He was a leading figure for Klamath Union as a freshman but foot injuries have essentially wiped out his time on the diamond ever since.

“He’s a very talented young man but he’s still got to get his feet wet a little bit because he hasn’t played in almost two years,” said Panthers head coach Ray Smith.

Thurston

Senior returners Jacob Asa (third base/pitcher), Aaron Patterson (first base/pitcher), Kyler Hinkle (second base) and Johnny Contreras (center field) lead a Colts contingent that went 16-11 last year and is looking for better.

Freshman JJ Sargeant steps in at shortstop, with sophomore Cade Bates expected to fill a need in the rotation.

South Eugene

First-year head coach Danny Sales, a 2003 Thurston graduate, inherits an incredibly young squad, with only two senior returners in Matt Moore (catcher) and Dan Queirolo (pitcher/utility) to go with junior Sam Menegat (pitcher).

The Axemen will start six sophomores, with Rory James highlighting that bunch at shortstop and the top of the order with pitcher/third baseman Jonah Sherman and pitcher/center fielder Michael Moore.

Willamette

Willamette returns five starters off a six-win team one year ago at the 5A level, with senior Donnie York leading the charge as a pitcher/designated hitter to go with juniors Jeremy Wilton (third base), Tyler Burton (second base), Brycen Hill (left field) and Matt Hubbs (center field/pitcher).

Junior shortstop Chase Freeman is a key newcomer as a sparkplug to a capable offense.

The Wolverines boast a number of pitching options led by York and Hubbs, but consistency will be the key.

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

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North Medford senior Josh Berman (1) was an all-state honorable mention after hitting .349 with 19 RBIs and 11 runs in 2014. MT FILE PHOTO
North Medford senior Colton Westfall is coming off another all-state season in which he posted a 13-2 record and 1.58 ERA. MT FILE PHOTO