PILOT ROCK — For the past seven seasons, Mike Baleztena has walked the sidelines as the Pilot Rock football coach.
This coming fall, Baleztena will be cheering on his son Bryson on the cross-country course, leaving the Rockets in the capable hands of a yet-to-be-named coach.
“For the last couple of years, I only got to see three of Bryson’s cross-country meets,” Baleztena said. “During hunting season, I can only go one or two days. I want to spend the next couple of years hanging out with him until he goes to wherever. I love football, but I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my son.”
Baleztena sent his players a message a few weeks ago, and he let them know he always will be there for them.
“When you coach, it doesn’t stop,” Baleztena said. “I have been with these boys since the third grade. It will be rough. I sent out a message to the boys. They understood. I am not bailing on them, but I want to spend more time with Bryson. Especially after being sick.”
Baleztena was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer during the summer of 2020.
On Aug. 28, 2020, doctors removed a 5-inch tumor, his left kidney and both of his adrenal glands. Fortunately, the tumor was not attached to the pancreas.
A few weeks ago, his most recent CT scans and blood work came back good.
“Hopefully that is the way it stays,” Baleztena said. “The past 18 months, I have been very happy and very blessed. I can’t even put into words how lucky I am to get a second chance.”
A Rocket for life
Baleztena grew up in Pilot Rock, graduating in 1986.
He played football, did track and played basketball his senior year.
“There was no finesse there,” he said of his time on the basketball court.
After high school, Baleztena spent four years in the Navy as an electrician for C-130s — a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft.
When he returned from his military service, he went to Blue Mountain Community College, where he was a thrower on the track team.
Baleztena, who works for the Umatilla County Road Department, started with the Rockets football program in 2012 as the line coach. He took over as head coach in 2015.
That first year, the Rockets played in the Columbia Basin Conference with powerhouse Heppner, Weston-McEwen, Stanfield and Irrigon. They finished 0-8.
In 2017, Pilot Rock dropped from 11-man ball to 8-man ball, which had Baleztena scrambling to adjust his game plan.
“That year, we played an independent schedule,” he said. “We were going out of the gate trying to figure it out.”
In 2018, Pilot Rock started the season 6-0 before a 46-8 loss to Dufur derailed the Rockets. They finished the season with a 26-8 loss to Adrian/Jordan Valley in the first round of the playoffs.
Then came 2019. Led by all-purpose player Tyasin Burns, the Rockets posted a 6-3 record, including a 50-30 victory over league power Dufur. They lost 50-34 in the first round of the state playoffs to Days Creek.
“That was the year,” Baleztena said. “With the win over Dufur, it was a coach’s dream. Too bad we had injuries and didn’t play the playoffs like that.”
Burns, who came from Nixyaawii as part of the schools’ co-op for football, was a once-in-a-lifetime player for Baleztena.
“For three years, the kid could do everything,” Baleztena said. “Not only did we have him kick and run a mile every game, it was everything else he did. He was so smart. A coach is always hoping for a player like that, and I was lucky to have him. We had a good quarterback (Tanner Corwin) and a line that could block.”
The coronavirus pandemic pushed football to spring in 2020 where the Rockets had a 4-2 record.
The past fall, Pilot Rock started the season 2-0 before injuries and suspensions depleted the roster. The Rockets finished 2-5.
Through the course of seven seasons, Baleztena had an 18-34 record.
Baleztena said he would like to return to the team in some capacity in the future.
“I have to put football on the shelf for a little while,” he said. “I’d like to say I’ll be back.”