Mustangs face familiar playoff obstacle

Sandee Kensinger has seen his share of playoff opponents over the years, but Thursday night will be a first for Kensinger and his Medford Mustangs in American Legion AAA play.

In what's believed to be a first for the Mustangs, Kensinger will square off in a coaching capacity against former Mustang standouts Matt Skundrick and Nate Mayben when they bring a determined Salem Post 9 bunch into town.

"They're good kids, man," says Kensinger of his adversaries. "It's going to be fun."

The friendly relationship among the coaches might encompass all the fun in the best-of-three series, especially given the rivalry that has developed between the Post 9 Highwaymen and the Mustangs the past two years. In 2006, Salem beat Medford in the state championship game. Last year, the Mustangs gained revenge by winning their playoff series in improbable fashion thanks to a pair of road victories.

"They've always been tough," Kensinger says of Post 9. "We kinda have a short-lived rivalry going with them where they've knocked us off and we've gotten them. A lot of things can happen (in a best-of-three series), so we'll see. Traditionally, though, they're very tough."

The opening game is 6 p.m. Thursday at Harry & David Field, with Game 2 slated for 5 p.m. Friday in Salem. Game 3, if necessary, will be Saturday afternoon at H&D. All games are scheduled for nine innings, and the series winner advances to the state tournament in Eugene.

Skundrick was an assistant coach for Post 9 last year prior to moving into the head coaching role and played for the Mustangs from 2000-02. He remains the program's all-time strikeout leader with 263 and innings-pitched leader with 234. Skundrick helped lead Medford to the 2002 American Legion World Series and earned the tournament's Bob Feller Award for the top pitcher.

Mayben joins Skundrick as an assistant coach and was a key figure for the Mustang from 1997-99. He helped lead the team to a runner-up showing at the World Series in 1997.

Salem had to work overtime in order to secure the No. 3 spot in the state playoffs out of Area 3, edging the Three Rivers Sandblasters of Florence, 11-9, in a 16-inning affair that spanned two days.

"They've kinda had an up-and-down season, that's about all I know," says Kensinger of Post 9. "I know they had a tough road getting in (the playoffs), but none of that matters now."

Salem is led by a host of pitchers in Sheldon Austria, Matt Kirschner, Chad Fahey, Jeremy Barton and Brett Bucheit. On the whole, the group hasn't been overpowering, but certainly has been effective in getting the outs when needed. Three Rivers left the bases loaded four times and stranded 17 runners against Salem in their marathon tilt.

Offensively, Kevin Shepard and catcher Marc Labarthe have been key contributors, along with many of the aforementioned pitchers.

Against Three Rivers, Salem showed a willingness to score by any means possible after Austria led off the 16th inning with an infield single. Alex Williams and Labarthe each dropped down sacrifice bunts and Steven Rodriguez plated the eventual game-winner with a suicide squeeze. Earlier in the game, Shepard belted a two-run homer.

The Mustangs (37-8) counter with a talented squad that won 20 straight games at one point, but wrapped up the Area 4 championship by going 3-3 down the stretch.

"Coaches don't like that to happen, they like to keep the momentum going," says Kensinger of his team's potential late-season letup. "The teams we lost to were all good teams — everybody in our league's tough — and sometimes that just happens."

Still, the Mustangs got back to work on Monday in preparation for this week's big series.

"We have some things that we need to clean up and the kids know that," says Kensinger. "It's been a long summer, but we want to keep it going. It's crunch time and your players need to step up with that challenge."

Kody Stevens enters the playoffs with a team-leading .434 batting average, while Griff Boyd is second with a .420 average and leads the team with 46 RBIs and 24 extra-base hits.

Dustin Smith is hitting .394 and, along with Boyd, leads the team with 50 runs scored to go with a .549 on-base average. Earlier this summer, Dustin Smith became the Mustangs' all-time leader for walks in a career, and enters Thursday with 44 walks drawn in 45 games.

Jared Smith is hitting .355 with 42 RBIs, and has also been a key cog in the pitching rotation with a 5-1 record and 1.55 ERA. The former South Medford High standout also has an amazing 33 strikeouts and only three walks in 402/3 innings.

Logan Odom is hitting .372 with 40 RBIs and is also 7-1 with a 1.84 ERA on the mound, while John Adamson is hitting .365 with a team-high five home runs. Boyd, Odom and Jared Smith each have four homers.

Jordan Lewis has once again anchored the Mustangs' rotation and sports an 8-0 record and 0.60 ERA entering the playoffs. He has 82 strikeouts in 58 innings and only 15 walks, while Sam Gaviglio is 5-2 with a 2.16 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 45 innings.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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