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Intriguing talent

A baseball team from the Southwest Conference has played for the Class 6A state title in seven of the last nine years, winning three in a row heading into this spring.

Whether that streak continues will certainly be a storyline in a SWC race that expects to be intriguing once again this year.

“It’s going to be an interesting year in that some of the big names that have been in the conference for so many years are gone,” said Roseburg head coach Troy Thompson. “I don’t think the league is going to be any different or down per se. The experience level might be different but the talent level I don’t think will be. There’s very good talent in the Southwest Conference and you don’t have to go far in the playoffs over the last five years or so to see that.”

Sheldon has played in the last three state championships — winning twice — and was given the nod over 2014 champion North Medford in this year’s preseason SWC coaches’ poll. The Irish received six first-place votes and earned 48 points. North Medford and Grants Pass each received one first-place vote, with the Black Tornado edging the Cavemen, 40-39, for second place.

Roseburg was tabbed for the fourth and final automatic playoff berth out of the SWC with 30 points, followed by Thurston (24), South Medford (22), South Eugene (12) and Willamette (9).

North Medford will look to get off on the right track Tuesday when SWC play opens with the Black Tornado as host to South Medford. SWC teams will again play each other three times in the same week to complete the series.

For North Medford, a shot at a repeat conference title will likely depend on how quickly its almost entirely revamped roster can get up to speed. The Black Tornado returns first-team all-SWC players in senior catcher Greyson Wolff and senior second baseman Tate Cowden, but the rest of the crew consists of first-year starters.

“We’re going at it like we’re the underdog because truthfully we only have two returning kids and going at it without an identified No. 1 pitcher back,” said North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe.

Cowden batted .343 with 19 runs scored last year and moves from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 hole, while Wolff hit .281 with 14 RBIs and will be tasked with adding pitching duties to his repertoire this spring.

While the rest of North Medford’s lineup may be young, it’s not necessarily unproven. Most of this year’s leading figures were part of the North Medford Mavericks’ run to the American Legion A state title last summer.

“Each member on this team has been part of a state championship in the summer or in the spring, and some of them have been members of two,” said Wolfe, “so they know what it takes to win and they know what it takes to be persistent in achieving something.”

Senior Honus Kindreich and sophomore brother Larson Kindreich will be focal points for North Medford this season on the mound and at the plate, along with senior shortstop/right-hander Berry Hunt.

Steady production last year by juniors Justin Geyer, Kasey Buchanan and Preston Johnson will help fill the void left by last year’s senior-dominated lineup, while senior third baseman Dakota Adams was steady in splitting time at the varsity level one year ago.

At issue will be a set rotation among the likes of the Kindreichs, Wolff and Hunt, along with Johnson, senior Dallas Casebier and sophomore Zack Collins

“We have four or five guys that are all pretty decent and have different strengths,” said Wolfe. “It might be one of those things where we go with the guy that’s hot at the given time.”

Sheldon

As the reigning 6A champion, Sheldon has some voids to fill but plenty of talent to vie for another SWC title under first-year head coach Tyler Martell.

Senior first baseman/right-hander Justin Herbert and juniors Sam Olsson (catcher) and Matt Land (second base) were first-team all-SWC picks a year ago, while junior shortstop Zach Diehl, senior outfielder Jackson Johnson, junior outfielder Tanner Zenke and junior right-hander Josh Vitus all return to the starting lineup.

Juniors Geoffrey Lillywhite (outfielder/right-hander) and Nick Dorsing (outfielder) will be looked at to step up this season.

Sheldon’s returning experience expects to make the Irish solid on offense and defense, with Martell looking to shore up the consistency of his pitchers to make the kind of run Sheldon has become used to under predecessor Stan Manley.

Grants Pass

No SWC team boasts more returning starters and veteran players than Grants Pass, with 12 players in and out of the starting lineup last year and, essentially, back again for a third straight year.

“We’re hoping to reap those benefits from playing those guys at an early age,” said GP head coach Brian Diatte.

Senior first baseman/right-hander Cody Ekwall, senior shortstop Easton Bents and senior outfielder Kadin Lopez were first-team all-SWC picks last year, while senior second baseman Jake Stoffel and sophomore center fielder Tyler Rund also earned all-league recognition.

Juniors Vince Zavolta (outfielder) and Logan Zozaya (third base) join seniors Jaron Kroplin (outfielder) and Drew Bjorn (catcher) in rounding out a deep lineup.

Ekwall is joined by seniors Brennen Lauffenburger and Chris D’Amico in giving GP three quality and seasoned starting pitchers.

Health issues have slowed the Cavemen in recent years, with Bents, Ekwall and Lopez still mending, but Diatte is confident in his team’s ability to challenge for its first conference title since 1976.

Roseburg

Roseburg returns starting pitchers Chris Stone and Will Reddekopp to give confidence for a return to the top tier of the SWC, along with first-team all-SWC outfielder Chance Beecher.

In all, the Indians return seven seniors, with Grant Ronk moved to catcher, as well as junior infielder Treven Jacks.

Senior Zack Watkins will be joined by freshman Zack Mandera and sophomore Cody Johnson in giving Roseburg depth on the mound.

Thurston

Junior pitcher/first baseman Cade Bates and sophomore shortstop J.J. Sargeant were second-team all-SWC picks last year, and seniors David Travelstead (catcher/pitcher) and Logan Sebright (first base/outfielder) and sophomore Preston Fisher also earned all-league recognition.

Thurston expects to field a sophomore-heavy lineup, including Chase Elliott (second base) and Carson Werder (third base), and added Marist junior transfer pitcher Alec Howard.

South Medford

Senior Cole Carder, a second-team all-SWC shortstop who is transitioning to center field, anchors a young lineup that includes second-team senior outfielder Hunter Bradford and sophomore standouts Brandon Letendre and Jack Thompson.

Senior Matt DeVries returns with Letendre and Thompson to bolster the Panthers’ pitching rotation, with juniors Ethan Whitney and Skyler Loogman providing depth. Bradford, who hasn’t been able to pitch due to injury since his freshman year at Klamath Union, also could fill a void in relief situations.

“We’ve got a lot of arms, just a lot of unproven guys,” said South Medford head coach Ray Smith.

Senior catcher Christian Mahoney joins first baseman DeVries and third baseman Thompson as returning starters on an infield that includes sophomores Jaalen Owens (second base) and Clint Campbell (shortstop).

Outfielder Jaylin Parnell and infielder Jacob Melton are other sophomores the Panthers will rely upon this season.

“I think we have high expectations,” added Smith, who has started six sophomores in the field this year. “There’s a learning curve there and a lot of things these kids have to learn through experience. I’m confident these kids are going to rally and no doubt they’ll compete, it’s just the speed of the game is a little different and something you can only learn through gametime experience.”

South Eugene

Senior left-hander Sam Menegat, who was on the all-SWC second team last year, gives South Eugene a chance to win each time he’s on the mound. The California Lutheran-bound product is complemented by all-league junior returners Isaiah Molaski, Gavin Bronaugh, Jonah Sherman and Rory James.

Sherman and junior Michael Moore join Menegat in giving the Axemen a boost on the bump, and head coach Danny Sales envisions breakout seasons by Moore, junior Patrick Pierson and freshman Walker Wonham.

Willamette

Senior first baseman/right-hander Tyler Prescott and senior outfielder Brycen Hill return as second-team all-SWC picks, and seniors Josh Glover (outfielder/LHP) and Tyler Burton (second base) also earned all-league recognition.

Seniors Matt Hubbs (outfield/RHP), Chase Freeman (shortstop/RHP) and Austin Barkdull (third base/RHP) return to give Willamette valuable experience, with Hubbs, Glover and junior left-hander David Rosebrook anchoring the pitching rotation.

Senior Trenton Koffler (first base/LHP) was injured most of last spring but returns healthy for 2016.

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 Greyson Wolff is a returning first-team Southwest Conference selection who will play a key role for the Black Tornado this spring. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.
South Medford senior Cole Carder, a second-team all-Southwest Conference shortstop, is transitioning to center field. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON