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South aims to seize opportunity

Without question it would be quite a bookend moment for the South Medford High sports year, but the school’s baseball team isn’t interested in putting the cart before the horse anytime soon.

South Medford’s football team flirted with its first state championship in program history to start the school year in the fall, and now many of those same faces this spring will lock in on a goal to reach another Class 6A state championship final in the coming weeks in baseball.

It’s a testament to the value of multi-sport athletes, which is something sports programs here in the Rogue Valley annually promote but seems to be lessening across the country with a lean on specialization to increase scholarship chances.

“In this age of specialization, here at South we truly are reaping the benefits of the multi-sport athlete,” said South Medford football head coach Bill Singler, noting a host of talented football players are also shining in track and field this spring to give the Panthers a shot at several state placers in that realm.

“The multi-sport athlete was the hallmark of the great Medford teams of the past,” added Singler, “and we are seeing this play out positively at South the past couple of years.”

Such school-wide success is also a testament to the hard work being put in by the athletes and coaches, and that’s where the Panthers’ mindset is these days in baseball.

South Medford caps the regular season with three Southwest Conference games this week — at Harry and David Field against North Medford at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and at Willamette for a doubleheader Saturday — and a nonconference clash against Thurston, ranked No. 1 in the Class 5A power rankings, next Tuesday.

The Panthers (18-3, 15-0 SWC) already wrapped up their first conference championship in 14 years with a sweep of South Eugene this past Saturday, and currently stand in first place in the 6A power rankings.

“We’ve got to get to the next step now and we’ve got to work hard in practice to get there,” said South Medford senior Jaalen Owens, who has been a triple threat for his school in football, basketball and baseball.

South Medford’s baseball program last reached the state championship game in 2010, falling 4-0 to Clackamas in the first season under head coach Ray Smith. It’s the only time the Panthers made it that far in school history, but this group of talented South Medford seniors already knows a little something about making a little history. The football team had not advanced to the title game in school history until last December, and the 12-2 squad would have a championship banner on the wall now were it not for a last-second field goal by undefeated Clackamas.

The common denominator? Besides obvious talent and athleticism, for the Panthers this year it’s been about genuine love and respect for one another.

“I think the best part for me is they really enjoy each other,” said Smith of his baseball team, which already boasts the most wins in any of his nine seasons. “There’s a good team camaraderie and a bond with them that is something special. It doesn’t happen all that often, it really doesn’t. They really love and care and play for each other. That has nothing to do with the coach, that has everything to do with the kids being the best teammates they can be. You look around here and there’s a lot of those humble type kids.”

Senior center fielder Jacob Melton is batting a team-best .542 with eight home runs, 42 runs and 25 RBIs, but on this team he is just one of the guys — and that’s the way Melton prefers it to be.

As a team the Panthers are batting .318, with plenty of stellar play by senior third baseman Clint Campbell (.340, 14 runs, 17 RBIs), Owens (.339, 16 runs, 10 RBIs), senior left fielder Jaylin Parnell (.375, 18 RBIs), sophomore shortstop Zac Ankeny (.316, 13 RBIs), senior first baseman Robby Carle (.298, 14 runs) and senior catcher Jack Thompson (.279, 16 RBIs).

Senior right fielder Jaron Emerson, who is batting .281, pulled a hamstring last week and all his replacement did was come in and not miss a beat as senior Sebastian Molina raised his average to .400 in limited action.

“That’s the thing about our lineup, one through nine anybody on the team can get a hit at any time,” said Parnell, who was the 6A defensive player of the year at linebacker and first-team all-state pick as running back in the fall. “I think with a lot of other lineups, sometimes you have some dropoff the later you get into the lineup, but with our lineup I don’t feel like we have that.”

It’s a dream scenario for Smith, whose team has twice had to play five games in the span of a week and came through unscathed thanks to a deep bench and a pitching staff that has been anchored by senior Brandon Letendre (6-1, 1.79 ERA) and junior Ricky Boortz (6-0, 2.05 ERA) but gotten plenty of help from Carle, Melton, Campbell and Daniel Shenk.

“We do have the depth and a lot of guys that can get the job done,” said Smith. “I have confidence in each and every one of them. It’s a comfortable feeling to know that kids will come out and get the job taken care of.”

It’s also a comfortable feeling when you know your teammate is there to pick you up whenever the need arises.

“I love this team and I love the atmosphere that they bring with them,” said Owens. “Hopefully we can keep this going.”

OTHER STORYLINES to watch in this final stretch of the baseball and softball regular season include nail-biting weeks for the Crater baseball and North Medford baseball and softball programs.

For the Crater baseball team, last year’s 5A state runner-up, all hopes rest on a three-game series sweep of Eagle Point this week for the Comets to hold onto the No. 2 spot in the Midwestern League and skip the need for a play-in contest to reach the state playoffs.

Crater (18-5, 14-4 MWL) plays at Eagle Point (11-10, 10-8) Tuesday, then will host a doubleheader at Anhorn Field Saturday.

For North Medford’s softball team to secure at least a share of its ninth straight SWC title, the Black Tornado (18-4, 13-2 SWC) starts with a home date against South Medford (5-16, 3-12) Tuesday but then must hit the road for a pair of tough games at Roseburg (14-7, 11-4), which edged North 6-3 in the first meeting between the teams on April 17.

North Medford is currently tied atop the softball standings with Grants Pass (18-3, 13-2), which will host South Eugene (6-18, 4-13) Tuesday before playing a doubleheader at Sheldon (18-6, 10-6) Saturday.

The Black Tornado baseball team will try and play the role of spoiler this week for it to clinch the No. 4 spot in the SWC and the final automatic berth in the state playoffs. North Medford (12-10, 7-8 SWC) plays at South Medford Tuesday and then heads to second-place Roseburg (14-6, 10-5) for a twin bill Saturday.

With Sheldon (9-13, 6-10) having only two games remaining against Grants Pass (7-16, 4-11), that hold on the No. 4 spot is a little precarious for North Medford but certainly attainable should the Tornado get some help from the Cavemen and earn at least one win this week.

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

South Medford’s Clint Campbell (2) interacts with teammate Jacob Melton during a sweep of South Eugene on Saturday.