By Kris Henry
Little brother tagging along with big brother is an age-old scene for those who have grown up with siblings, but it’s also a rarity when it comes to the Medford Mustangs.
Several brothers have come through the vaunted American Legion AAA program over the years, but what Jack and Bennett Thompson are providing this summer is pretty unique.
For the first time since Hayden and Jared Evans donned Mustangs uniforms together in 2013, another set of brothers is doing the same thing on the same squad — and the defending four-time state champions are certainly the better for it. Charlie and Lewis Sebrell played together in 2008, Logan and Griffin Boyd in 2006, Kevin and Brandon Ray in 1992 and Tim and Brad Arnsberg in 1980.
“Probably the most unique thing about it is they’ve never played together,” says Mustangs manager Nate Mayben, “so for them to be able to be on the same team competing at this level — and have four years difference between them — is pretty cool.”
It’s no surprise that Jack is a featured part of the program after a standout four-year run at South Medford High. The versatile 19-year-old is bound for Westmont College to play baseball in the fall but before he does, he’s batting cleanup for the Mustangs and chipping in wherever needed in right field, first base, third base, pitcher and catcher.
Entering Saturday’s opening game of the state tournament in Roseburg, Jack is batting .385 with 36 runs, 54 RBIs and 18 extra-base hits in 43 games.
“His versatility is what’s been huge,” adds Mayben. “Then obviously being that mainstay as a No. 4-hitter it’s been a long time since I’ve had my one through five hitters basically just be consistent all year and he’s been a big part of that and a big part of our offense.”
Where things took a historic turn is the addition of Bennett, who at 15 just wrapped up his freshman year at South Medford but boasts skills well beyond his age. He was able to get three at-bats for the varsity Panthers, of which his brother was one of the team leaders, but went 0-for-2 with a walk and one RBI.
Still, there was something intriguing about Bennett that the Mustang coaches couldn’t let him go after he more than held his own during tryouts.
“He’s definitely been a surprise, a really nice surprise,” says Mayben.
Bennett has split time at catcher with Justin Geyer, providing a dependable defensive presence to go with a .313 batting average with 19 runs and 11 RBIs in 31 games.
“We definitely didn’t expect him to be a guy that we would use in crucial situations and basically start behind the plate the first game every league series,” adds Mayben, “but he’s proven himself and it’s been awesome for us because we know what we have behind the plate the next three years. He’s earned every bit of it, too.”
What has also been awesome is how seamlessly the brothers have gone about their business all summer to help Medford post a 37-9 record and Area 4 championship.
“They get along great,” says third-year Mustangs standout Joe Johnson. “I don’t know how they are at home — I don’t know if they butt heads at all — but they seem like good friends. They’re both just always working hard and staying loose ... I’ve never seen either of them upset honestly. They’re both just good kids.”
Good kids who have played countless wiffle ball games in their backyard ballpark — complete with foul poles, basepaths and scoreboard — and have a love for baseball that is unmatched.
For Bennett, this summer has almost been a dream come true.
“It’s incredible, just the atmosphere with this team is unlike any other team I’ve ever been on,” says the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder. “And obviously to be with my brother for one last summer, that’s one of the greatest things I’ve done because I’ve never really played on a team with him before.”
As older brothers might do, Jack has a somewhat different take on their team union.
“Having to wait for him in the mornings and take him to practice is kind of annoying,” says the 6-1, 190-pounder with a wry smile. “Nah, it’s fun to be able to play with him. I’ve watched him play for a while so I know what he brings to the table. He’s competing and proven to be a valuable part of the team, so it’s pretty cool.”
All jokes aside, there is plenty of pride for Jack knowing his little brother has been able to get the job done when called upon.
“He’s just been so advanced and ahead of everybody as long as he’s been playing that it really hasn’t shocked me that he’s stepped up to the challenge with being at a higher level and being asked to produce,” says Jack of Bennett.
For Bennett, having his older brother around the dugout, as well as Medford’s overall veteran cast, has been instrumental to his success.
“It’s nice to be able to pick his brain and what he does because he was obviously a four-year varsity athlete and a very successful player,” says Bennett of Jack. “It’s nice to kind of pick his brain and some of the other guys on this team’s brain and see how they approach the game.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Bennett, who was taken aback at first by the increased speed of the game at the Legion AAA level but has since gained comfort thanks to the help of his teammates and big brother.
“Whenever I feel down on myself or if I’m stressed out or something,” says Bennett, “Jack can kind of be there to relax me because he knows me better than anyone and he can tell when I’m frustrated or when I’m anxious about something. He can kind of be there to support me or be there to pick me up when I’m down, so that’s one of the best things about having him here as a teammate.”
And what’s the best thing about having Jack as a brother?
“He pushes me because he’s obviously a very good baseball player and is going off to college to play at a successful school,” says Bennett. “He pushes me every day to kind of be like him and copy him and even possibly be better than him.”
For Jack, having Bennett around has helped free him to step away from his typical catcher duties to shoulder other responsibilities as well as, he jokes, simply have a low man on the totem pole to carry most of the gear.
What has really helped make it work, however, is the matter-of-fact relationship that the duo shares. As Jack puts it, “when game time comes around, (Bennett’s) just another one of the guys who is going to help us out on the field.”
“If you just came on this team and you didn’t know their names, you’d never really know they were brothers,” says Mayben. “They do a good job of just being themselves. Jack, especially, does a really good job of not letting what Bennett does distract what he does or vice versa. They’re their own guys, and that’s really cool.”
Being part of the band of brothers that the entire Mustangs have become has also made it easier on each Thompson brother. Every player is treated as valuable and equal, and all held accountable in the same way — typically with good-natured jokes.
“That’s all you can ask for is to be treated as your own person,” says Jack. “Obviously we’re brothers and I love (Bennett), but it’s kind of nice to be on a team and be your own person and have us all just be teammates and come together the way we have. This is such an awesome group of guys, I can’t wait to see what we can do (at the state tournament).”