Friday, March 23, 2012/lk
The "baby birds" are all grown up.
After making the state playoffs with a roster comprised almost entirely of freshmen, sophomores and juniors last year, this year's HRV softball team is another year older and another year wiser.
The Eagles fought their way into the state playoffs after finishing fourth in a tightly contested Columbia River Conference race.
They then beat Milwaukie and Madison in play-in games before West Albany finally got them to fold in the first round of state.
This year the team has bigger expectations.
"We know we can get further," said first baseman Natalia Ames.
"It's expected," added outfield Megan Winans.
Much of the team played during the summer and several more played in the fall.
Most of the team has also been playing together since they were in Little League.
"We want to go from Little League to state champions," second baseman Amanda McCafferty said.
With coach Eric Keller's first year and adjustments to philosophy and mechanics that came with it behind them, the team is focusing on fundamental execution as it heads into the season.
That means cutting down on mistakes and putting teams away when they get the chance.
"We want to take the steps to be a great team; not just a good team," said Keller.
The Eagles have the luxury of working on the little things because there are virtually no new players to break in from last year. They lost only one senior last year, outfielder Katie Wood, and instead of wondering who they were going to plug in to the lineup, got to work on turning double plays and hitting pitches with movement.
The Eagles figure to have strength up and down their lineup, with a good mix of speed, power and gap hitters. Sophomore pitcher Kayla Byers is a threat on the mound and at the plate and figures to get the bulk of the time on the mound for the Eagles.
Up the middle HRV has Hallie Curtis at short, McCafferty at second and Ames at first. Speedsters Katie White and Erica Enriquez join Winans in the outfield. Utility player Hannah Williams can play either corner when she is not serving as the team's designated player.
The only significant change from last season is that Annie Veach and Logan Bailey switch spots in the infield, with Veatch moving behind the plate and Bailey taking over at third.
Keller's expectation is that all of the players are prepared to get to the next level this year.
"We want to take the next step," he said. "We want to get to the round of eight and then see where the chips fall."
The Eagle baseball team also has big plans this year. Like the Eagle softball team it made the state playoffs, and also like the softball team, it lost to West Albany in the first round.
"These guys have high expectations for themselves," said HRV coach Erich Harjo. "They feel being in the state tournament is not enough this year."
The Eagles return a core group of players from that team, including junior catcher Kyle Beam, shortstop Cody Walker and pitchers Lucio Alaniz and Gabi Nuno. One big spot to fill from graduation is pitcher/outfielder Parker Sherrell, the Eagles' No. 1 pitcher and leading hitter last year.
"Kyle Beam has taken on a big leadership role for us, not just on varsity but in our whole program," Harjo said. "He and Cody Walker are definitely emerging leaders; they are always vocal and the other guys look to them."
The Eagles have enough bats to make up for the loss of Sherrell with junior Nick Weekly figuring to shoulder more of the offensive load. The big question through the offseason though was who would take Sherrell's innings on the mound.
The answer: Nearly everybody on the team.
The Eagles only plan on carrying 11 players on the varsity team, but Harjo is not too worried about the numbers.
"Of those 11 guys we've got seven or eight who can all toe the rubber," Harjo said.
Among that group Nuno and Alaniz will be "1A and 1B" in the rotation according to Harjo.
"It's different," said Nuno. "It's the first time I've really got the starting nod at the high school level so my approach is different."
The Eagles are also solidly built for defense, with Ty Bofferding, Walker and Ryan Colesar manning the middle infield and the rangy outfielders like Julian Bridgeman, Luke Kopecky and Alex Jimenez.
All the players have been spending the bulk of the spring practicing outside, regardless of the weather conditions.
Harjo is hoping the preparation in bad weather will help the team when things finally turn nice outside.
"We've spent a lot of time practicing in this," Harjo said, as rain drops splattered his hat. "Being able to get outside in whether like this and put it aside has been a huge positive.
Through every instance of adversity, whether it be conditions, team size or a tough non-league schedule, the Eagles are trying to make a positive.
"We're not very big but I'd rather have 11 guys who are all fighting to get in the lineup," Harjo said of the team size.
The non-league schedule is a challenging one. HRV faces the likes of Clackamas, Barlow, Astoria, Corvallis and Jesuit in their non-league slate.
"We want to work on team chemistry," Walker said of what the team wants to get out of its non league schedule. "We want to get guys clicking on all cylinders and have everybody know their roles on the team."
Whether they win those games or not, the rankings boost from the opponents will help get them a better seed for state play-in games, and they are hoping to use the games as a measuring stick to see how they stack up against some of the better teams in the state.
"Our team chemistry is just going to have to take over," said Beam. "We are going to have to play well together."
The Horizon baseball is hoping for the same thing this year.
The Hawks returned to the diamond after several years away last season, and made a run to the district playoffs before thing fell apart due to injuries and player ineligibilities due to grades.
They don't plan on repeating that experience.
"As long as we are all on the field, we'll be all right," said Mitch Engel.
"Grades are the only thing that can keep our season from going to June 4," added outfielder/pitcher Sam Anthony.
The team is largely made up of the same cast of characters from the basketball team which won the 1A state title last month, and the seniors on the team would love to go out having won state championships in two different sports.
"We want to be state champs in baseball as much as we did in basketball," said Max Totaro. "We had our swan song in basketball, now we want one in baseball."
The basketball playoffs cut into the first week of baseball preparations, and the weather has not helped with practice time since then, but the Hawks are now ready to shift focus.
"People are still excited and we're still pretty hyped but we are ready to make a state run for baseball," said Jeff Wilkins.
The team returns many of the same elements from last year, including Mitch and Micah Engel and Anthony. One big question mark heading into the season is who will fill the innings pitched by Tanner Pettit and Cody Bott last year.
Tasked with answering that question is first year coach Joe Petshow, who steps in for Jim Brown.
"It's understandable that expectations are high for this group, because so many of them were involved with the state championship basketball program. As coaches we're just trying to help them improve their baseball skills. We'll see where that takes us a couple of months from now," Petshow said. "One of the best things about this spring will be the continuity of coaches. Mike Engel, Rusty Hicks and Jim Brown coached many of these players last season, and they're back doing so again. That's a big plus for our team."
Like the Eagles, the Hawks are playing a tough non-league schedule, with 3A Horizon Christian of Tualatin on the slate, as well as 3A Rainier and defending 2A-1A runner-up Portland Christian.
They hope learning to beat those types of teams will carry the group to a state playoff spot in its second year. While basketball may get most of the attention at Horizon, a few of the players who have baseball as their primary sport have just been waiting for the chance to take the field this spring.
"Playing baseball is our sport," said Wilkins with a big grin as he gestured to both himself and Engel. "It seems like a long wait just to get around to baseball season."