MILTON-FREEWATER - It wasn't really the losses that bothered Mac-Hi pitcher Carlos Ruvalcaba, it was the team's attitude afterward.

As the Pioneers suffered through a 3-16 season in 2003, Ruvalcaba, then a sophomore, was wearied at what he saw.

"They lacked leadership," Ruvalcaba said about the previous upperclassmen. "They were just out there to be out there.

"After losing a game, they would be talking about something else. You could tell they didn't care."

The Mac-Hi softball team was having its problems as well, suffering through a losing season three years removed from a Greater Oregon League title.

But after the 2003 season, things started to change. For starters, a new indoor hitting and pitching facility most Class 4A teams would envy was opened, the coaches went full throttle into summer leagues, and the community threw its support behind both programs.

Now, the two clubs that were considered easy wins by GOL opponets in 2003 have become two of the most powerful 3A forces in Eastern Oregon.

Mac-Hi baseball won its first 11 games, and now has a 15-1 overall record, as well as a spotless 12-0 mark in the GOL.

"We took our share of beatings," Mac-Hi baseball coach Barry Wofford said. "And this year, we're returning the favor."

The Pioneer softball team won its first seven games, beat Riverside for the first time since the 20th century and is now 12-3 overall and 5-3 in conference.

The baseball team is ranked No. 3 in the state coaches poll, and softball is No. 10.

"It's wonderful to see these two groups of athletes find success on the fields," Mac-Hi athletic director Jay Rodighiero said. "They are good students, good kids."

The consensus around Milton-Freewater is that the roundball Renaissance has four main causes: the new facility, the success of the summer leagues, community and parental support, and, above all, the talent and work ethic of its players.

Wofford said the character of the underclassmen he was forced to promote from junior varsity in 2003 - that team started two freshman and two sophomores - has been the catalyst for this year's success.

"It's all about the kids," Wofford said. "We didn't have any senior leadership at all three years ago."

A classic example of the new Mac-Hi baseball attitude came April 12 during a game against Riverside. Ruvalcaba went six innings without surrendering a hit, and struck out 15 batters before he was relieved in the seventh inning.

Wofford wanted to save Ruvalcaba for the upcoming week, and the senior never complained.

"The attitudes are different," Ruvalcaba said. "Everyone wants to work hard to get better.

"The attitude's what makes the difference. If you don't have a good attitude, it's not going to happen."

Softball has seen similar maturity, particularly in the form of off-season training.

"There isn't anybody on this team that hasn't spent a lot of extra time working hard in the summer," softball coach Barry Weis said.

With the addition of what is simply known as "the baseball facility," Mac-Hi players can practice anytime, day or night, rain or shine.

The facility, which features hitting tunnels and places to practice pitching, was the brainchild of the late George McRae. The American Legion Post 24 put up $50,000 for its construction, and with the help of donations from Koncrete Industries and Sun Rental of Walla Walla - along with endless volunteer labor - the facility opened in the summer of 2003.

John Gaukroger, coach of the American Legion's Milton-Freewater Twins, was the "foreman" of the project and marvels at the results.

"The many hours I put in are justified by the results that I see from the kids playing baseball and having winning seasons," Gaukroger said. "It makes the time worthwhile."

The baseball facility, Gaukroger said, is also a sign of a revitalized roundball culture in Milton-Freewater.

"The kids literally get to practice and stay tuned," Gaukroger said. "And they also have the knowledge that there are people in the community that care enough about the baseball program that they would put this building up and make it available for them."

Of course, the players have to make it to the facility, which brings the Pioneer parents into the successful equation.

They have been part of the new culture of baseball and softball, coaches say, and their support has made all the difference.

"We've got a great group of parents here," Weis said. "You've always got to have parents. We've got a lot of support here for softball."

Summer teams such as Gaukroger's have also played a key role in the turnaround, just ask Weis.

Weis coached the Junior Little Leaguers from Milton-Freewater, who were one game away from the World Series last August.

The star of that team was pitcher Amber Knight, who is now a freshman on the Mac-Hi softball team. Knight is starring as the team's co-ace, along with Ranzy York.

"We've got a lot of good kids in our program right now," Weis said. "We're looking forward to the next several years. I think we're just going to keep getting stronger."

For now, even with the confidence of continuity, the Pioneers are looking to this year. Last week, the softball team went toe-to-toe with No. 1 Baker, losing 3-1 in the second game of a doubleheader.

York also sees a different attitude from her teammates.

"We practice hard, and we really came out to win this year," York said. "The freshmen that came out are helping us out a lot."

Baseball, despite its status as the only undefeated team in the GOL, looks to continue to focus on the task at hand.

"We have a lot of work to do. We're not thinking we're all that," Wofford said. "We know we have to keep getting better, and we know we have to come to the ball park ready to play every time.

"If we don't, we'll get beat."


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