Under an overcast sky on a cool and breezy Wednesday afternoon, the sounds of mitts popping and aluminum bats cracking filled the air at Steve Cary Softball Field in Pendleton. The sights and sounds were a welcomed change for this reporter — because it means the spring sports season is here.
Practices for all sports — softball, baseball, track and field, tennis, and golf — officially began on Feb. 26, and all teams have roughly two weeks until games and meets begin on Mar. 12 to whip things into game shape.
Although practices began last week, numerous teams are only just getting up to full strength this week with basketball playoffs coming to an end. The Pendleton softball team is one of those teams with key contributors Kalan McGlothan, Rylee Gentner and Sami Spriet finally able to trade in their basketball sneakers for cleats to gear up for the Buckaroos’ first game, which is only six days away.
High expectations surround the Buckaroos this season. The team has compiled a 49-10 overall record and reached the Class 5A state semifinals in each of the last two seasons, losing each time to the eventual state champion. And while some big-name players have graduated in that span — notably Alexis Morrison, Payton Hergert, Maddy Parker — the Buckaroos return enough firepower that sets them up for perhaps one last big push at another state championship.
Leading the charge will be two-time all-state pitcher in senior Lauren Richards, with senior Alexi Brehaut as a solid No. 2 and junior catcher Kila Solomon making up an excellent battery. At the plate, McGlothan, Brehaut, Aspen Garton and Gentner make up a powerful middle of the order with Kirah McGlothan and Richards setting the table at the top.
The Bucks get started with a road trip to Hanford (WA) on Tuesday and begin league play at The Dalles in mid-April as they set their sights on another conference championship and a trip to state in June.
Here are some other teams and storylines to watch for throughout this spring season:
ROCKETS RUN OVER?: One of the best softball teams across the state of Oregon over the past three seasons has been the Pilot Rock Rockets. They captured back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016 and came up just short of a third straight title last June with a 3-1 loss to North Douglas in the championship game.
However, the road to a fourth straight title game appearance could be a little more difficult this season. Star pitcher Tehya Ostrom and former state player of the year Bekah Roe have graduated, as did key contributors Jacey Wilson, Stacy Fitzpatrick and Shayla Walker. But senior catcher Rhyanne Oates and senior infielder Sara Weinke are among the returners this spring that are looking to add another ring to their collection.
The Rockets start on the road at Weston-McEwen on Mar. 20.
HERMISTON’S FINAL FAREWELL: The narrative may seem repetitive by now, but Hermiston’s OSAA farewell tour is onto its final stop. The Bulldogs have only four more months of competing in the OSAA before leaving for the WIAA, which means only four more months to leave a lasting mark.
On the track, the Bulldogs’ boys and girls track teams each come into 2018 as defending district champions and top-five finishers at state. Nine combined individual state qualifiers in 19 events return for the Bulldogs this season in what should be another strong year.
On the baseball diamond, the Bulldogs welcome in first-year head coach Kevin Moore to try and improve upon a last place finish in the CRC with nine varsity returners. On the softball diamond, the Bulldogs aim to take a big step in the CRC with numerous returners from last season’s young squad that started four freshmen.
In tennis, Hermiston’s lone state qualifiers were lost to graduation but the Bulldogs are set to return some solid players including the top boys doubles pairing of Thomas McCullough and Patrick Wicks. And finally on the golf course, Hermiston girls team returns three starters from the state qualifying team in Grace Blackhurst, Makenzie Lind and Leslie Browning.
WILL MOTHER NATURE COOPERATE?: The first few weeks of the spring season can be quite frustrating for fans, players and coaches alike. Between numerous rain storms that cause game postponements or cancellations, the chilly temperatures and blustery winds, it leaves many longing for the days not long ago of sitting in the warm gymnasiums in the winter.
But once the temperatures begin to warm up and the rains become less frequent here in Eastern Oregon, it’s quite enjoyable to head to the ballpark to catch a game or get out on the golf course for a round.
Contact Eric at email@example.com or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.