BASEBALL PREVIEW: Parity reigns supreme in SWC
South Medford baseball coach Josh Moody hasn’t coached a single game in the Southwest Conference and has lived in the Rogue Valley for less than a year, but that hasn’t stopped him from an acute awareness of what he can expect this spring.
“It’s a pretty even conference from what I’m seeing,” said Moody, who hails from Arizona. “I don’t think there’s a team you can look at and you know that they’re going to go out and beat everyone this year.”
That team was South Medford one year ago as the Panthers went unbeaten in the SWC and secured their first conference title in 14 years.
This year, however, there is no clear-cut favorite.
Roseburg and South Eugene shared the honor as the preseason favorite in voting by the league’s coaches, with each receiving three first-place votes and 23 overall points.
South Medford finished third in the voting with 14 points, just ahead of North Medford (12), Sheldon (10) and Grants Pass (8).
“I don’t think there’s a clear-cut top of the league and I’m real sure there’s not a clear-cut bottom two or three,” said veteran Roseburg coach Troy Thompson. “I think everybody’s very capable once again this year to win a title and put themselves in position to finish in that top spot.”
South Medford’s fortunes rest in the capable hands of returning starters Zac Ankeny (junior shortstop) and Rickey Boortz (senior pitcher) as the Panthers look to transition with Moody at the helm and a mostly inexperienced cast around them.
“The thing that I love about our team is we have a lot of guys that are willing to work hard and grind it out every day,” said Moody. “They have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders, wanting to prove they’re varsity players, and they’re hungry to compete.”
Ankeny batted .276 with 14 runs and 14 RBIs and Boortz posted a 7-2 record and 2.88 ERA one year ago. Boortz was a first-team all-SWC pick and Ankeny a second-teamer in 2018, and each has already gotten off to a strong start this spring.
The rest of the crew, however, logged only seven innings on the mound and 39 at-bats for a senior-driven Panther team last year.
Sophomore catcher Bennett Thompson steps in after a summer of work with the Medford Mustangs and will be asked to spark the offense and defense, which will include a role as one of the Panthers’ top starters with Boortz and sophomore Blake Shields.
Seniors Bennett Smith (first base) and Giovanni Bottero (center field) bring a wealth of leadership and understanding of the game to help bridge the gap for their younger teammates, with juniors Chase Costanti and Steven Ledendecker and sophomore Charlie Campbell expected to play big roles.
Seniors Trevor Marthoski and Payton Owens also give the Panthers depth in the outfield and varsity experience, with sophomore Kaleb Barney another name to watch.
Typically among the top teams in the SWC, North Medford slipped to fourth last year after finishing sixth one year prior. A resurgence may be in order this year, especially if the Black Tornado’s younger players continue to rise to the occasion.
North Medford returns four starters in seniors Ryan Sandoval, Brady Buchanan and Jeremiah Huffman and junior Ryan Kloek, but a host of promising juniors and sophomores fill out the roster and give promise for head coach Brett Wolfe in his 25th season.
“We have good leadership,” said Wolfe. “Our kids are scrappy and we have to be scrappy because we’re good but we’re not great. We have to compete, so I like the fact that we do things right. We get to the park and kids know what we want done, they hustle in and out, they compete, they pick each other up and we have to do that in order to put together a team that can compete.”
Sandoval is North’s top arm on the mound coming off a year in which he was named to the all-SWC second team as a pitcher, and a key contributor in the outfield and at the plate.
“Anytime he’s on the mound we’ve got a chance to compete,” said Wolfe.
Sophomore left-hander Cody Borraggine has given the rotation a jolt with his bulldog mentality, with Buchanan, Kloek and Tyler Dunlevy stepping in to help offset the early-season loss of sophomore Gavin Schmidt, who suffered an injury while bowling and likely won’t be available to pitch until the end of April.
Offensively, the Black Tornado will look to strike in all phases, utilizing the bunt game and trying to spray the ball to all fields. Borraggine and Josh Baptiste’s speed and ability to create at the top of the order, with Buchanan, Sandoval and Kloek moving them around, will be key to North’s success.
“We’re striving for on-base percentage over batting average,” said Wolfe, whose team earned at least a share of the conference title in five of nine seasons from 2007-15. “If you can get on, you can score runs in a lot of different ways.”
It’s been seven years since Roseburg capped a run of four straight years earning at least a share of a conference title but the Indians have a great chance at ending that drought this spring.
Under the direction of head coach Troy Thompson, Roseburg boasts a lineup brimming with returning starters and with the kind of top-tier pitching you need to challenge any peer in senior Zack Mandera and junior Jace Stoffal. Mandera was a first-team all-SWC pitcher last year and Stoffal made the second team.
Overall, the Indians boast six returning starters and regain the services of junior catcher Spencer Six, who missed last season due to a torn ACL.
“We return a number of players that played a lot of innings for us last year,” said Thompson. “A good place to start is on the mound with Mandera and Stoffal returning. It’s nice to have a couple quality arms back for another year, and those two guys are certainly that.”
First baseman Jonathan Stone also returns after a first-team all-SWC run in 2018, with second baseman Caden Johnson moving over from second base to shortstop while Mandera and Stoffal share third base. Part-time starter Luke Van Norman steps in at second.
In the outfield, juniors Jett Black and Dorian Gillespie return as anchors on defense as well as key contributors with Stone, Mandera and Johnson.
With a second-place showing in 2017 and third-place mark last year, South Eugene will look to prove it expects to maintain its position as one of the SWC favorites this year as head coach Danny Sales returns a veteran squad that expects to contend for the title.
“I think the bar has been raised here and I am excited to see how our guys respond to that,” said Sales, who was the Medford Rogues’ interim manager last summer in Tyler Graham’s absence. “We have some guys who love to go out and compete.”
South Eugene returns everyone in its lineup except its designated hitter, leading to such optimism.
Right-hander ace Kaden Miller was a first-team all-SWC pick last year, along with fellow junior Bryce Boettcher (shortstop) and Tristan Vidal (center fielder), while junior third baseman Dylan Edwards and junior first baseman Trey Nelson were honorable mentions.
Second baseman Zach Menegat is another senior leader and pivotal cog for the Axe, while juniors Hunter Brown (catcher) and Devin McIrvin (pitcher) join sophomore Thomas Touchette (outfield) as returners.
After Miller, South Eugene has a deep rotation that includes Vidal, Touchette, Boettcher and Brown, with McIrvin serving as one of the first arms out of the bullpen.
After three straight seasons of earning at least a share of the SWC title, Sheldon took a tumble last year after replacing nearly all of its roster and finished second-to-last in a year where two games separated fourth and sixth place.
Second-year head coach Kellen Hobie returns six senior starters in Calin Morgan, Nate Brown, Eli Seno, Isaiah Lugo, Aiden Wagers and Dawson Prickel and hopes that crew will be able to steady the ship.
Prickel was a first-team all-SWC utility player last year, with Morgan also earning honorable mention acclaim and Wagers logging several innings on the mound to give him confidence heading into the 2019 campaign.
Hobie said he’s also looking for junior Kaleb Coffin, sophomore Andrew Boyd and freshman Taylor Langworthy to contribute this season.
Senior standout Patrick Herbert will not be returning to the diamond this spring. He has enrolled early at the University of Oregon to prep for the football season.
With its top three pitchers returning with a host of regulars, Grants Pass has the tools to shake up the expected SWC finish under second-year head coach Kevin Shafer.
That’s been said before, however, and the Cavemen are bound to prove to naysayers that they are capable of getting over the hump in the usually challenging SWC slate. Grants Pass hasn’t enjoyed a winning league record in more than a decade, finishing as high as second place with an 8-8 mark in 2011 as part of the Southern Oregon Hybrid.
With pitchers Cade King, Braeden Bellum and Matt Knight, the Cavemen have experience on the mound. Third baseman Payton Calabro was a first-team all-SWC pick and honorable mention all-state last year and sparks an offense that is capable of putting together big innings with center fielder Andrew Medley, another all-SWC pick, joined by Sean Tobin, Kolby Dinkel, King, Bellum and Jett Hood.
“Our biggest strength this spring will be our depth both on the mound and offensively,” said Shafer. “We will have plenty of options in both of the areas.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry