By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Meet the new boss

The strength of the McMinnville baseball team in 2014 may well be – its strength.

From the beginning of the school year up through the first two weeks of practice, the Grizzlies have been hitting the weight room and performing strength and agility drills to work through a long season.

“That’s one of the things we talked about as a coaching staff – baseball in terms of a game is not considered a physical game,” Grizzlies coach Jordan Harlow says. “At a higher level it is. That’s one of the things we want to implement.”

Harlow, a member of Linfield’s NCAA Division III national championship baseball team last season, understands what a higher level of baseball requires of a player. His goal has been to maintain a standard for toughness – physical and mental – that McMinnville needs if it intends to return to the Class 6A state baseball playoffs.

The Grizzlies finished 16-13 overall and 11-6 in the Class 6A Pacific Conference in 2013 under former head coach Darren Bland, who now leads up the Corvallis High School baseball program. Mac finished second in the conference to Tualatin and advanced to the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs before falling to Sheldon, 22-2, on May 23.

Under Harlow, the Grizzlies have hit the ground running. McMinnville has participated in two-a-days during the two-week spring sport practice period, with classroom instruction before school and physical exertion after school.

The team, Harlow says, has risen to the challenge.

“I was really impressed,” he says. “Mentally, this is one of the better and stronger groups I’ve seen. Some things you can’t necessarily coach. We pushed them and they responded really well.”

McMinnville will be one of the more experienced teams in the Pacific Conference, with nine seniors on the 17-person roster. Nevertheless, a trio of juniors – outfielders Zach Rhoads and David Brosius and infielder Adrian Uscanga – have stood out in the field and at the plate early on.

The pitching rotation is unsettled, but sophomore Kade Mechals and juniors Brosius and Riley McAnally have been the most reliable arms. Seniors Drew Spence and Travis Allen factor into Harlow’s plans for the bullpen.

Senior Gage Gubrud, the Grizzlies’ ace pitcher in 2013, will miss the first two weeks of the season as he deals with nagging injuries. Where he fits into the pitching or defensive rotation when he returns will be another challenge for Harlow to navigate.

“I know that he’s bummed but he’s being smart about it and that’s our goal,” Harlow says. “When he says ‘I’m ready to go for it,’ we’ll say okay.”

The Grizzlies’ first official game is Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. against Class 5A Sandy. McMinnville will also participate in the Volcanoes Spring Tournament, held March 25-28 at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.

“That’s where state championship games are played,” Harlow says of the tournament. “You know, why not? I think (the players) are really excited about it.”

Sophomores, juniors pace Yamhill-Carlton

The freshmen and sophomores from 2013 are growing up.

Yamhill-Carlton took its lumps on the diamond, going 5-17 overall and 3-12 in Class 4A Cowapa League play. A young roster, with two seniors and two juniors, had to adjust to high school baseball in a hurry.

“It was a long season, no two ways about it,” second-year coach Brett Brunner says. “We had a very young team that struggled because we didn’t have a whole lot of experience.

“The team coming back is pretty much the same team.”

The 2014 Tigers will rely on a cadre of young arms. Brunner says that senior pitcher Zach Rhodes “can be one of the best pitchers in the state,” and sophomores Tanner Myrick, Quentin Benson and Cody Stokes will be relied upon either as starters or relievers.

Sophomore Branden Bernards, a revelation as an outfielder in 2013, figures into Brunner’s plans as an outfielder and pitcher, while senior Conner Weidner will hold down a middle infield position.

Of the 28 players in Yamhill-Carlton’s baseball program, just three are seniors – and only one, Matthew Williams, has played significant innings.

“That sophomore group is kind of the heart of my team,” Brunner said. “They’re the ones that work and the ones that know how to play ball.”

Dayton eyes spot atop West Valley

The Dayton baseball team dealt Horizon Christian of Tualatin a blow in 2013. This season, the Pirates are intent on again challenging the Hawks for a spot atop the Class 3A West Valley League.

Dayton finished 15-8 overall and 9-3 in the WVL in 2013, upsetting Horizon Christian, 11-8, in the WVL playoffs on May 16 and qualifying for the OSAA Class 3A state playoffs. The Pirates’ postseason adventure was cut short, however, as Valley Catholic dealt Dayton a 7-5 loss.

However, the Pirates return all by three players from last year’s team. All-state outfielder Forrest Garcia will be irreplaceable, but 14 of the 17 players on Dayton’s varsity roster are juniors or seniors – maturing players who have spent time in coach Roger Lorenzen’s program.

“I’m very excited about who’s going to step up and shine,” Lorenzen says. “The last couple of years, we knew who those guys were.”

Pitching figures to be a strength, with sophomore Kobe Chenea and seniors Caleb Letney and Jarred Montgomery returning; another senior, Cade Stahl, has been pegged by Lorenzen as the team’s likely closer. The Ashley brothers, junior Darren and sophomore Jarred, are experienced returners at shortstop and first base, respectively; junior Tyler Clark will handle catching duties but is expected to play all over the field.

“He’s a versatile athlete,” Lorenzen says. “I’d like to get him going with the bat a little more.”

A wild card for the Pirates is senior Jade Downs, a transfer from Nestucca. Lorenzen figures to start him in the outfield and also use him on the mound in certain situations.

Dayton’s ability to reach deep into its lineup, Lorenzen figures, will drive its top players to improve.

“There’s guys who want to get on the field,” Lorenzen says. “Better keep your nose clean.”

Pitching rotation pacing Warriors

Parity is a fact of life in baseball, and the Amity Warriors benefited from it in the Class 3A West Valley League tournament.

The Warriors upset Colton in the first round of the WVL playoffs to advance to the league’s third place game, where Amity lost, 12-10, to Gervais on May 16. The brief run boosted the Warriors’ record to 5-17 overall (4-8 WVL).

“It was just kind of a developing year,” Amity coach Corey Baughman says. “Record-wise, we weren’t fourth (in the WVL), but we almost were by two runs.”

With four seniors on the 14-man roster, more development is in the offing for the Warriors. One unexpected setback has also affected early-season practice: Amity boys basketball’s run to the Class 3A state tournament has necessitated several multi-sport athletes to take it easy at first.

Baughman believes that, for the Warriors to rise above a crowded middle of the WVL, Amity’s pitching will carry the day. The Warriors have three likely starters in seniors Brett Hilt and Donald Goodwin and sophomore Brady Baughman, with sophomore Lance Nelson expected to take the mound often in addition to playing first base.

“We’ve got lots of pitching,” Baughman says. “It’s just young.”

Baughman calls senior third baseman Derek Ojua “the leader of the pack.” Sophomore Colby Graham has also distinguished himself as the team’s starting catcher.

Spartans look to break out the bats

The Sheridan baseball team kept itself in many games in 2013, but ultimately struggled to finish the job.

What the Spartans’ record – 4-16 overall, 2-10 in Class 3A West Valley League play – belied was a struggle to win close games. Sheridan went 0-5 in contests decided by two runs or fewer.

“We were fairly competitive,” fourth-year coach Todd Peterson says. “There were games where things got out of hand against upper-echelon teams.”

Two of the Spartans’ top pitchers, Joey Hertel and Kyle Edwards, were lost to graduation. Senior Matt Bushbaum steps into the No. 1 starter role this season, with senior Boone Meyer and sophomore Jackson Meyer expected to throw a high number of innings. Senior Hayden Purron, who will miss the first two weeks of competition with a broken leg, will pitch and play first base for Sheridan.

Peterson has been impressed with junior outfielder Andrew Glynn and senior catcher Cody Herron through two weeks of practice; Herron, Peterson says, “looks really sharp both defensively and swinging the bat.”

Twenty-six baseball players turned out this spring, but Peterson says more than half are new to the sport, leaving less than desirable depth.

“I think we can hit the ball this year,” Peterson says. “The big issue the last few years is consistency with the pitching staff.”

Last game a jumpoff point for Bulldogs

Talk about saving the best performance for last.

Willamina baseball largely struggled in 2013, finishing 5-13 overall and 4-8 in the Class 3A West Valley League. The Bulldogs hosted Colton on May 10 in their last game of the season and, in a shocker, upended the Vikings, 13-9.

“It was kind of a showing of what could be this year,” 10th-year coach Cliff Toney says, “and what could have been last year.”

Willamina’s 12-person varsity squad has a clean slate this season and looks to make the most of it. Pitchers Brodey Bruckner and Nathan Johnson will be counted on to keep the Bulldogs in games. Toney is excited about the potential of sophomore outfielder Tyson Healon – “kind of a jack-of-all-trades” – and senior infielder Dylan Blakely, whom Toney considers “a potential all-league player.”

Sophomore Luis Estrada has emerged as an X-factor for the Bulldogs. The 6-footer will pitch and play both corner infield positions for Willamina.

“He’s a big, strong, very capable young man,” Toney says. “The kid is strong as a bear. He has a lot of potential.”

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