Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Two years ago, as Cascade Christian battled Santiam Christian for the Class 3A baseball state championship, Cooper Clark spent most of the afternoon standing on the steps of the Challengers' dugout at Volcanoes Stadium and soaking it all in.
Then a fresh-faced sophomore, Clark knew he probably wouldn't see any action that day. An upperclassman started at second base for the Challengers and Clark was content to enjoy from up close in what turned out to be a thrilling 5-3 win for Cascade Christian.
"They were pumped up the same way we were (Tuesday) and they just had a lot of energy, and I think that's what you take into it," Clark said, "a lot of energy and knowing that we can do it."
They'll try to do it once again today at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, where Cascade Christian (23-5) will be the designated home team against Glide (24-3) in the 3A state championship game. The first pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m.
Clark, who bats second in the order and starts at second base, is one of the Challengers' unsung heroes. He doesn't have the name recognition of stars Kyle Ferguson, who will get the start on the mound today, or Cody Coggins, but he's a gap-hitting No. 2 hitter who's jump-started the Cascade Christian offense all season.
A 5-foot-10 senior, Clark is batting .388 with 14 doubles — more than twice as many as anybody else on the team — three triples and 25 RBIs. He also has the best slugging percentage on the team (.622), ranks first in runs scored (38) and second in stolen bases (11).
Clark's gargantuan senior season didn't happen by accident. It's the product of countless hours of hard work, a regimen that began long before winter turned to spring.
"From the time football ended (Clark) was with me just about every day that he could be, working out in the cages and just doing the little things to get himself ready," Challengers first-year coach Nate Mayben said. "His leadership just showed me right there that this is going to be a guy for us. He's one of those kids that isn't going to get a lot of attention because he's hitting in the two hole so he's asked to do a lot of different things and he's a second baseman so he doesn't get the opportunity to make that spectacular play all the time. But he makes every play, so you can't ask for much more than that."
He's also been instrumental in showing his teammates what it takes to succeed. And not by saying it, by doing it.
"He's not a big vocal leader," Mayben said, "but he's a kid that's going to go out and do the job and lead by example. He's not going to be the ra-ra guy, but you don't need a bunch of those guys. He's a guy that does everything the right way the first time. He's the perfect type of player that you want in your program."
That's especially the case against a team like Glide, which forced Cascade Christian to do just about everything right the first time in order to pull out a 2-0 win back on May 2. About three weeks later, on May 19, the Wildcats exacted their revenge, beating the Challengers 1-0 on a squeeze play in the bottom of the 10th. Ferguson pitched nine shutout innings in the rematch, but didn't get the decision because Glide ace Jacob Fricke, a 6-foot-4 junior lefty, and reliever Bryson Belloir, a 5-8 sophomore righty, combined for a nine-inning, seven-hit shutout.
"Both games we've played have been outstanding baseball games — defensively, offensively and pitching-wise," Mayben said. "They've just been a lot of fun to be a part of and I expect the same (today)."
Fricke, who's 8-1 with a 0.82 ERA, delivered a seven-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in Glide's 3-0 semifinal win over Valley Catholic on Tuesday and is unlikely to see much action on the mound today. The Wildcats' other options include 6-foot junior lefty Tylan Dubois (8-1, 2.55 ERA) and Belloir (2-1, 2.80 ERA).
For Cascade Christian, Ferguson (8-2, 2.31 ERA), a 5-9 senior right-hander, will look to duplicate his May 19 performance, which included 10 strikeouts.
Also available to pitch for the Challengers is 6-4 junior righty Will Weaver (4-0, 0.92 ERA) and, in a pinch, possibly Coggins (9-1, 1.34 ERA), who pitched 52/3 innings during Tuesday's wild 10-9 win over Horizon Christian.
"Maybe if we're lucky and (Coggins') arm bounces back, and if the situation calls for it, we might get an inning out of him," Mayben said. "But that's all I can expect."
Though they haven't looked like it against Cascade Christian, the Wildcats boast one of the most potent batting lineups in the state. With a team batting average of .392, they've scored 308 runs (11.4 per game), second only to Horizon Christian in 3A baseball.
Senior Cory Finlay, Dubois and senior Tanner Shaddy have been terrors at the plate for Glide. Finlay's batting .589 with 12 doubles, seven triples, two homers and 30 RBIs. Dubois is batting .507 with eight doubles, four triples, three homers and 38 RBIs, and Shaddy is batting .468 with 10 doubles.
For Cascade Christian, Clark, Coggins, Tristan Jones and Ferguson lead an offense that's averaging 7.75 runs per game. The Challengers have also received clutch playoff hits from Matthew Sha and Eric Higday. Coggins leads the team with a .413 batting average, and his RBI triple in the bottom of the seventh Tuesday capped the Challengers' comeback from a 7-2 deficit. Jones is batting .380 with six doubles and three triples, and Ferguson .374 with six doubles and four triples.
What's it going to take to claim the rubber game against Glide and make it two state titles in three years?
All things being equal, says Mayben, sound defense will probably be the difference.
"That's what it's going to come down to, who's going to make the one or two mistakes in the game," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a high-scoring game so I don't think there's going to be a lot of mistakes being made. If somebody makes a mistake, I'm sure the other team's going to jump on it."
Which means the team that does a better job maintaining its composure will have the advantage.
That's fine by Clark, who can't wait to walk out of the dugout at Volcanoes Stadium and help the Challengers go for another first-place trophy.
"Baseball's a sport where you can't really be too excited," he said. "It's too much of a thinking game to get it all jumbled up in your head, so you really need to just relax and keep playing your position.
"It's going to be a great game and I'm just excited to see what happens."
Reach reporter Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469, or email email@example.com