Each baseball team carved out its own path to this week's American Legion AAA state tournament, but very little of that journey will matter once the five-day event begins Wednesday at Harry & David Field.
Whether teams were league champions, battled through super regionals or advanced by virtue of being the tournament hosts — as in the case of the Medford Mustangs — the eight-team competition now becomes about which squad is able to rise to the occasion at the right time.
"I think this tournament is going to be a fun tournament to see who's able to rise to the challenge," said Mustangs head coach Nate Mayben. "It's kind of an unknown tournament this year as far as we're concerned because we haven't seen most of these teams. Really, I think this tournament's wide open. Whoever's hot this year is going to be the team that walks away with it."
If anyone is to carry the tag of tournament favorite, the best choices include league champions Grants Pass Nuggets (Area 4), Canyon Crushers of Salem (Area 3), Portland Eastside Barbers (Area 2) and Columbia Gorge Hustlers (Area 1).
The Northwest Star Academy East County Knights and Corvallis Marketmen each advanced to the state tourney after hosting and winning their respective super regionals, while the DeMarini Dirtbags of Salem proved dominant in going 3-0 to claim the super regional in Roseburg.
As for the Mustangs (28-17), their role as state tournament host allowed them to use the regular season as a testing ground in preparation for a run at the program's 12th state crown. Medford has advanced to the state championship final in each of the past seven seasons but hasn't won it all since 2008.
"We're ready to go, I don't know what else we can do," said Mayben, whose team played a tune-up game against the North Medford Mavericks on Monday night. "We've played around with our lineup a lot and I think we're at a point where we know what we have and what pieces we have to use and how to use them. All we can do now as coaches is hope that the players have bought in — and I think they have — and let them go out and perform, and hopefully they're ready for it."
Wednesday's tournament openers are Canyon vs. NW Star East County at 9 a.m., Portland Eastside vs. DeMarini at 12:15 p.m., Grants Pass vs. Corvallis at 3:30 p.m. and Medford vs. Columbia Gorge at 7 p.m. The double-elimination tournament's championship will be played Sunday.
A complete tournament bracket, ticket prices, team rosters and information for Harry & David Field are available by going to the website MedfordMustangsBaseball.com.
"I think it's wide open," Nuggets head coach Mike Reese said of the tourney. "That first game's a huge one. Everybody's going to throw their guy and everybody wants to get off to a good start. Nobody wants to drop down (in the loser's bracket) and play in that 9 o'clock elimination game the next morning."
For Grants Pass (34-10), Wednesday's opponent is a familiar one in Corvallis. The Nuggets won a super regional hosted by Corvallis two years ago before going 0-2 in the state tournament, then beat the Marketmen to open last year's state tourney before falling short in their next two games.
"Here we are sitting kinda like Groundhog Day ready to play Corvallis again," said Reese, whose team edged Medford by one game to claim its second straight Area 4 title. "It feels good to win the regular season side of things but this is a whole new ballgame and everybody's 0-0 going in. We feel good about ourselves and we've beaten a lot of good ballclubs, but I think our side of the bracket is pretty tough and we have nothing but respect for Corvallis."
The state champion has come from Area 4 in four of the past six years, and from the Salem area on five occasions since 2001. Corvallis won the state crown in 2003 and '09 during that same 12-year span. The last Portland-area champion was in 1989.
Columbia Gorge, based out of The Dalles, is making its first state tourney appearance since 2008, but head coach J.R. Runyon said he's optimistic about his team's chances, as well as the others coming from the northern part of the state.
"It's been a few years so we're definitely excited for the opportunity to come down and play in Medford," said Runyon. "I think it's anybody's tournament at this point. A lot of times you'll have favored ones in the tournament that are tough to beat, and normally that's Medford, but there's a lot of good teams in this thing so everybody has to be on top of their game to win it."
The Hustlers bring a 15-7 record to town after playing a limited summer schedule, with a four-game split against the Sandy-based East County Knights and a close loss to the East Portland Barbers. Runyon said Columbia Gorge will bring 12 players to the Rogue Valley, and the key to his team's success thus far has been its balanced lineup.
"When one guy's not getting it done, other guys are right there behind him ready to pick it up for him," he said. "That's been the story of our season, one individual doesn't necessarily make or break this team."
The Hustlers' team strength likely is in its offensive capabilities. Catcher Lucas Denney boasts home run power in the cleanup spot. Beaux Watt, Steven Bartells and Clayton Copper have come up with clutch with RBIs of late behind consistent table-setters Connor Mathisen, Justin Sugg and Nick Weekly.
"We tend to swing the bats pretty well and our defense is solid," said Runyon, whose team lost third baseman Nolan McCall to a broken hand three weeks ago. "The only piece of the puzzle left is pitching, and we have some guys who are able to get it done. It's just a matter of them being able to locate and getting batters to swing at their pitches."
Medford boasts the same team concept, with any number of players capable of stepping up in a given game. Key to the Mustangs' success thus far has been a pitching staff that boasts a team ERA of 2.90, led by Cody Hoff (5-2, 2.21 ERA), Carter Glick (5-1, 2.22 ERA), Hayden Evans (5-1, 2.71 ERA) and Isaiah Luzny (4-3, 2.85 ERA).
"Those four guys have really stepped it up all year long and they're filling roles that we didn't expect them to fill at the beginning of the year," said Mayben. "I think our whole pitching staff has done an amazing job and been pretty impressive."
Among the regular hitters, Jared Evans leads the Mustangs with a .380 batting average, with David Crofton (.368), Eric Carlson (.367), Charlie Walker (.366) and Hayden Evans (.364) not far behind. Walker and Taylor Raff have each scored a team-best 37 runs, with Walker also boasting four home runs and 43 RBIs on a team that has six players with at least 18 RBIs.
"As far as a two-strike hitting team, this is one of the best I've ever been around," said Mayben. "They battle and look to punch the ball in play and make something happen."
Offensively, few lineups have been as potent this summer as Grants Pass. With Marco Garmendia and Matt Cole getting on base at the top of the lineup, the Nuggets have been able to routinely move runners around with the likes of Josh Cowell, Anthony Martin, Jake Herklotz and Tyler Bennett.
"This is probably the best hitting ballclub I've ever had," said Reese. "We really have hit well through the lineup and beyond."
Reese said almost half of Martin's hits have gone for doubles, while Herklotz and Bennett lead the team in home runs and Cowell boasts the team's top batting average.
On the mound, Nolan Bastendorff has been dominant for Grants Pass with a 9-0 record and an ERA in the 2.60 range. Reese said Bennett, Tyler Gulbransen, Chris Painter, Herklotz and Ty Fox have also excelled on the mound for the Nuggets.
"Bastendorff has been tremendous for us all summer long," Reese said of the Crater High product. "He's a kid with a lot of upside to him and I really enjoy watching him on the mound because he just doesn't get rattled. I have all the confidence in the world in him."
Along with Martin, Bastendorff, Painter and Fox, other Nuggets with ties to Central Point are Evan Erskine and Sebastian Reynolds.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry