South sets tone in SWC
Much like in South Medford’s football program this past fall, the Panthers’ baseball team has been building for this season since a host of sophomores made their way into the regular lineup two years ago.
Were the season to go the same as it did in football, Panthers head coach Ray Smith would be a happy man in his ninth season at the helm.
As South Medford held great expectations in football and exceeded nearly all them by finishing as the Class 6A state runner-up, Smith’s deep and experienced squad has the potential to put forth a similar run this spring.
“I think all of these kids have been building for that so I think they accept the opportunity they have and are ready for that challenge,” said Smith, who led the Panthers to a state runner-up finish in 2010. “That’s one of the expectations that comes with the experience we have, but it certainly will be challenging because this is a tough league we play in. Every game you play is going to be a great challenge with everybody shooting for you.”
With star senior Jacob Melton setting the tone for a South Medford squad that boasts six all-conference returners, the Panthers were tabbed as the preseason Southwest Conference favorite in a recent vote by its coaches with five first-place nods and 34 points overall.
Roseburg finished a close second with two first-place votes and 31 points, then there was a logjam. Grants Pass and defending champion Sheldon each netted 20 points to tie for third, with North Medford and South Eugene each totaling 18 points to tie for fifth.
“It’s going to be another one of those years where anything can happen on a given day,” said Smith, whose program last earned a league title in 2004.
Prior to the season, Melton was named Oregon’s top high school senior by MaxPreps and has all the tools to live up to that billing. Melton was a first-team all-state pick last year after slugging nine home runs and batting .430 for the Panthers and striking out only eight times in 86 at-bats. He had 36 runs, 29 RBIs and five triples. He plays center field, first base and is the team’s lone left-handed pitcher.
“Without a doubt, he’s a dynamic high school kid right now,” said Smith. “He does it all. He’s just such an asset for us to have wherever we put him in.”
The Panthers took a hit in the offseason when pitcher Jack Thompson, who was penciled in as the team’s ace, was lost from any early mound duty because of a chipped a bone in his throwing arm that required surgery. Thompson, who was a second-team all-SWC pitcher in 2017, remains the catcher.
Returning all-SWC second-team seniors Robby Carle (pitcher/utility), Clint Campbell (third base), Jaalen Owens (second base) and Jaron Emerson (outfield) add to the Panthers’ experience level, with senior Jaylin Parnell returning to left field and sophomore shortstop Zac Ankeny back to anchor the defense.
South Medford got a boost with the return of senior pitcher Brandon Letendre, who was with the Panthers until transferring to St. Mary’s one year ago. South’s considerable depth includes seniors Daniel Shenk and Sebastian Molina and a handful of juniors.
“I think we have tons of options,” said Smith. “Sometimes it’s really difficult to make the right decision. We’re just going to have to let it play out on the field and let guys compete for spots. If something does go wrong, we have solid kids with experience capable to step in and fill that void.”
Last year’s sixth-place finish by North Medford was an anomaly, and the returning players are eager to show that this spring.
Brett Wolfe enters his 24th season at the helm and has players with a lot of tools; they just need to refine them and have it all come together for the team to make a typical spring run to the state playoffs.
“We’re making gains each day,” said Wolfe, whose team went 2-2 on its recent trip to Arizona against top talent. “It’s not the most talented team we’ve ever had but they’re all hard workers and they have talent. We just need to put it together.”
North Medford is sound defensively up the middle, starting with senior catcher Josh Robbins behind the plate and extending to senior returners Quinton Rumrey (shortstop) and Brandon King (second base), who was an all-SWC honoree last year.
Ryan Sandoval has battled a lingering rib injury, but the returning all-SWC selection will be a key contributor on the mound, in the outfield and at the plate as one of the team’s top hitters.
Jon-o Gassman also earned all-SWC recognition and will platoon between center field and the mound to provide pitching depth. He’s another consistently productive presence in the batting lineup, which takes its start from Rumrey and King at the top of the order.
Senior Zack Collins returns with the most mound experience and will play third base, and new additions Brady Buchanan, Trevor Corallo, Jeremiah Huffman, Nick Samudio and Owen Grafton will be called on.
“We’re pretty good,” said Wolfe. “We’re real solid defensively. We’re trying to figure out pitching and offense, but defensively we have no worries.”
As one of three first-year SWC coaches, Kevin Shafer inherits a squad with good experience and overall talent but needs to discover how to get over the hump in a tough league.
Senior center fielder/pitcher Tyler Rund was a first-team all-SWC last season and the four-year starter anchors a lineup that also features senior shortstop/pitcher Nate Morgan, junior infielder/pitcher Cade King and junior left fielder/pitcher Matt Knight.
With Rund, King and the left-handed Matt Knight (junior), Grants Pass has the pitching to give itself a chance, but about one-third of the team’s runs this season came in one game against Ashland (11-1 win). In recent action, the Cavemen have enjoyed more consistent production, which will be needed to earn one of the top four SWC slots and an automatic berth in the Class 6A state playoffs.
Sophomore outfielder Andrew Medley, junior catcher Kolbey Dinkel and junior designated hitter Braeden Bellum are tasked with lending offensive support to Rund and King toward the top of the batting order.
Veteran head coach Troy Thompson has a squad brimming with experience and top-tier pitching, led by first-team all-SWC returner Zack Mandera (junior) and second-teamer Cody Johnson (senior), and should challenge for the program’s first league title since earning at least a share of first from 2009-12.
Mandera and Johnson were both near the top of the SWC in innings pitched last year, and that experience and talent will anchor Roseburg’s hopes.
The Indians have been fantastic in runs allowed thus far at 2.5 per game and counter with a batting lineup capable of stringing together big scoring runs. Roseburg has taken a hit with the loss of returners Spencer Six (recent ACL surgery) and Luke Lucido (rotator cuff surgery last fall) but could get a late-season boost should Lucido return.
Returning outfielder Garrett Russell and catcher Terrell Jacks provide valuable senior experience to complement Johnson and Mandera, with senior Brody Black, junior Jonathon Stone and sophomores Caden Johnson, Jace Stoffal, Doran Gillispie and Jett Black names of note.
Kellen Hobie takes over as a first-year coach for a program that has been one of the best in the SWC, with Sheldon earning at least a share of the last three titles.
Junior first baseman Patrick Herbert is the lone returner with all-SWC accolades as the Irish replace 14 seniors from last year.
Senior outfielder/catcher Dylan Hansen also returns, with Hobie looking for good things from junior infielders Nate Brown and Cal Morgan, senior pitcher Hayden Brooke and senior outfielder Bruce Nealon.
Hobie said defense stands to be a strength.
South Eugene provided one of the bigger storylines last season with its ascent to second place in the SWC after flirting with what would’ve been its first title all spring.
Head coach Danny Sales returns all-conference talent in sophomore shortstop Bryce Boettcher and junior center fielder Tristan Vidal, who each will also take the mound.
Overall, however, South Eugene fields a young, largely inexperienced lineup — it started seven sophomores, two juniors and one freshman in the season opener. There is promise in the group but this will be a building year for South Eugene.
Senior Connor Marsh, sophomores Kaden Miller and Devin McIrvin will help bolster the pitching rotation, with Sales also expecting steady everyday play from junior infielder Zach Menegat, sophomore catcher Hunter Brown and junior outfielder Gordon Brunson among others.
First-year head coach Brian Vogel will lean on first-team all-SWC talent Peyton Bracy (junior) and all-SWC senior honorees Andrew Hefner and Griffin LaVassaur to steady the ship in a tough conference.
Vogel was an assistant coach at Sheldon High dating back to 2002, then moved to Lane Community College from 2012-14. He’s well aware of the challenge the Wolverines face but remains optimistic about their potential after losing only 3-2 to Sheldon in their SWC opener.
Bracy will anchor the pitching rotation after spending most of his time at first base last year, while LaVassaur returns to center field and the leadoff hitting spot. Hefner expects to contribute as a pitcher and infielder.
Sophomore Jarrett Allen will help the rotation and play left field, and Vogel expects big things from senior first baseman Joey Barr, freshman catcher/pitcher Dane Woodcook and junior pitcher/outfielder Easton Murphy.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry