It sure doesn't feel like it, but baseball and softball seasons are back. While the first week of games saw Eastern Oregon's teams battling the cold, wind, rain and hail, the rest of the season is looking much more promising.

Though no state championships were won last season, the two sports were arguably the most successful for the area's teams as several ball clubs made it to the state tournament.

Of those teams, some are looking to make another run at the title, while the rest are just hoping to remain competitive in their districts.

The one local team that seems to have the best shot at a championship this season is the Stanfield Tigers. With ace pitcher Casey Irving back on the mound for his senior year and already in mid-season form, the Tigers will be a tough game for any team this season.

Irving fanned six batters in only two innings of work in their opener against Riverside and added a two-run tater as icing on an already sweet opening-day cake.

The Tigers also bring a lot of senior leadership to the diamond after a semifinal appearance a year ago. And with second-year skipper Bryan Johnson calling the shots, the sky is the limit for this talented group.

The one Class 2A team that could give them a run for their money, at least locally, is the Heppner Mustangs.

The Mustangs lost a little more than the Tigers from their semifinal team, but returned a lot too. Sophomore Chance Day will look to improve on an impressive freshman campaign on the rubber, and coach Rick Johnston probably has forgotten more about baseball than most people will ever learn.

At Class 4A, the McLoughlin Pioneers appear ready for deep runs in the playoffs in both baseball and softball after strong seasons in 2007.

There may not be a better player in the state, let alone Eastern Oregon, than Pioneer senior Amber Knight. She's been terrorizing hitters and pitchers alike for four seasons, and has already accepted a full scholarship to play at Oregon Institute of Technology next season.

Knight tore through Class 2A 2007 state runner-up Weston-McEwen Saturday with 10 strikeouts, two home runs and eight RBIs.

"She roughed us up at the plate and roughed us up in the circle," TigerScots coach Jeff Griggs said, adding that they started walking Knight after the second long ball.

Even though the Pioneers gave them a beating, the TigerScots are another of this year's teams that seems to have all the tools necessary to make a serious playoff push.

With Noel Griggs back in the circle and a strong defense - which has already turned two double plays (a rarity in softball) - Coach Griggs said his team still needs to work on their hitting. Once they get that figured out, they'll be a team no one will want to face come playoff time.

That is, unless you're the Pilot Rock Rockets. The Rockets boast a solid pitching rotation, and according to coach Rick Hoisington, are deeper in all facets than a year ago.

"We've been in state the last seven years, and we want to continue the tradition," he said.

The two teams have built a healthy rivalry over the seasons and continue to look like two of the top teams coming out of the east.

Another softball team with a lot of buzz around them is the Pendleton Buckaroos. The club wasn't known for their power hitting last season, but with sophomores Alex Hillmick and Kelli Demianew working the circle, the Bucks shouldn't need more than a few runs each game.

Parents of the girls have been telling me since I started covering the team that a state championship is in the cards and this year is looking as good as any for that to happen.

Their rivals in Hermiston were dealt some tough losses when three first-team all-league performers graduated, but coach Ryan Keefauver said his squad is much faster and more athletic than the one that took fourth in the Intermountain Conference last season.

They've proved it so far, stealing 19 bases on the season already. Junior Hannah Whitsett leads the fleet-footed unit in the category and was 8-for-8 on steals in the team's two wins Saturday.

While the girls look to change their image as heavy hitters and make another run at a tough IMC field, the Bulldog hardballers, coached by second-year manager Greg Kaatz, look poised for a breakout year.

If senior Bryce Baldock can improve on his performance in the summer league just a little, the Bulldogs will have a bona fide ace to team with closer Chance Kopacz.

Couple that with a lineup that doesn't strike out much and has power when it needs it, and the Bulldogs could be a sleeper pick when the state tournament rolls around.

But the Bucks won't let their strangle hold on Class 5A baseball supremacy in Eastern Oregon go without a fight, and feature a pretty good rotation themselves, led by senior Taylor West.

Making it back to the state semifinals might be a stretch at this point, but you never know.

And that's the greatest part about America's past time and it's sister sport. All it can take is a well-placed bunt or an errant pitch left up in the strike zone to turn the fortunes of any team.

So without any further adieu, let's play ball!

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Matt Entrup is the East Sports Editor of the East Oregonian. Write him at mentrup@eastoregonian.com.

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