Tuesday, March 22, 2011/lk
The rain finally broke in Hood River this week, allowing some sunshine and fresh spring air to glide over the grass at the high school baseball and softball fields.
It looked almost like something out of a laundry detergent commercial. All that was missing was a voiceover announcer and a catchy jingle about effectively stains are removed.
The setting was appropriate. All three local teams are looking for a fresh start.
For starters there is a team returning to action after six years away. Then there is a new coach and a new league.
The Horizon Christian Hawks are returning to the field after six years away; Eric Keller is taking over the reins at the HRV softball program and Erich Harjo has the HRV baseball program primed to make a run in the Columbia River Conference.
The Horizon baseball team has probably the freshest start of all of them, considering they have not fielded a team since 2005.
It's been awhile since Horizon Christian had a baseball team. So long, in fact, that the school was not even "Horizon Christian" the last time it fielded a squad.
That meant the team has been waiting for new caps up until it takes the field for the first time.
They do return a familiar face to lead them: Jim Brown, who coached the last incarnation of the team.
Even though the team is new, it is not another first-year team just learning how to play the game.
"This group of kids has much more experience level than in the past," coach Jim Brown said. "The experience level on any of those old teams in the sense of game play simply doesn't match this group. I've got eight bona fide starters."
Brown also figures to have a strong pitching staff led by Hood River Valley senior transfers Cody Bott and Tanner Pettit.
Sam Anthony also figures to see time at pitcher but also is a capable defender who can handle nearly every position on the diamond.
"I don't think I've ever had three starting pitchers like I have now," Brown said.
Mitch and Micah Engel, Jeff Wilkins and Jordan Anderson also figure to play a large part in how the team fares in its first season.
In practice, Anderson has showed off tremendous range in center field and figures to be a significant asset for the pitching staff.
Almost the entire starting lineup has played baseball before, many of them at a high level, and Brown believes that will set his team apart as his players get to know each other and how they function as a team.
As they get ready for their first game, Brown is just glad to be back in the dugout again.
"It's nice to have it back," he said.
The Eagle softball team is not a first-year team. However, looking at the roster, one could be forgiven for thinking the program is a startup.
Over half the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores, and a young first-year coach is in place to lead them.
The Eagles struggled all across the board last season, and new coach Eric Keller is hoping that an infusion of young talent and a new philosophy will begin to turn things around.
"I'm bringing in information from college programs and putting in a new linear hitting philosophy and new footwork."
Among returning players, Hallie Curtis began to show promise with the bat at the end of last season; senior outfielder Katie Wood also has some pop, as does Bailey.
Meanwhile the Eagles will turn to freshman Kayla Byers on the mound to handle the bulk of the pitching load and provide some pop at the plate.
Other freshmen figuring to play a key roll are Annie Veatch and Erika Enriquez, who have already found themselves in the starting lineup.
"It's a fresh start," Wood said.
Bailey said that the team is already showing a change in attitude from last year, when it finished 1-13 in the Mt. Hood Conference and lost its last five straight.
"He doesn't accept mediocrity," Bailey said, adding that she was impressed with the way Keller has come and set to work. "For not knowing us, that is bold."
The team made the state playoffs in 2006, made it to a one-game playoff the following year, but has been in a nosedive since, culminating in last season's 5-20 record. The Eagles managed only five or more runs twice in 14 league games.
"We can't be satisfied with mediocrity," Keller said. "This program has a history of being great and we've got to get back to that."
"He expects perfection and wants us to keep trying until we get it," Megan Winans said.
The Eagles are going to have a trial by fire this season, but Keller believes that eventually his team will come through better for it, whether that be this season if the underclassmen grow up quickly, or in the years to come as they further learn his philosophy.
"Right now our lineup is over half underclassmen," Keller said. "I'm really excited about getting into it and not just having this team for one year."
The Hood River Valley baseball team is not new and neither is its coach, but after a year under coach Erich Harjo and moving into a new league, the team has new outlook this season.
The team is full of returning players, but the big question is who among them will do the pitching.
Parker Sherrell will be relied upon as the No. 1 pitcher, but after him things get shaky.
Without Bott and Pettit, Cody Walker, Lucio Alaniz and Grant Young all figure to see time on the mound.
"As a pitching staff we are very young," Harjo said.
If the Eagles can overcome their inexperience in pitching, they have a potent lineup and experience all throughout the diamond.
Kyle Beam is starting at catcher as a sophomore, but started much of the year last year as a freshman.
Gibson and Ryan Combelic are returning all-league players in the middle infield. Eric McNerney grew both with the glove and bat last season and will have some big shoes to fill at first place as he steps in for the graduated Sam Kopecky. In the outfield Gabbi Nunos, Lucio Alaniz, Sam Lee and Sherrel are all experienced outfielders.
"Most of the guys that played summer ball are all back out," Harjo said.
His players said a long summer of baseball helped them get used to the expectations and to learn their roles for the upcoming season.
"We figured a lot of that out in the summer," Beam said.
Another thing the Eagles figured out in the summer was how to play doubleheaders, something they will have to get used to in league play this year. They have three league doubleheaders with their Columbia River Conference opponents, all of them on Saturdays starting at 11 a.m.
The players on the team are already well-acquainted but will get to know each other even better on some long bus rides this season.
"We've been playing together since freshman year," Gibson said.
With all that time together under their belts and a more firm grasp of expectations, the Eagles want to make a run that they hope gets them back to the state playoffs.
"We're dialed-in," Sherrell said.