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Going for gold

St. Mary’s baseball program was floundering when Sean Gallagher took the reins in 2013.

He could have likened those downtrodden Crusader teams to lovable losers of fictional or historical repute. “The Bad News Bears” maybe, or the Mets of the 1960s.

Instead, in outlining the genesis of the 2017 St. Mary’s team that will play Friday for the Class 3A state championship, Gallagher compared it to the Gashouse Gang, the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ collection of unrefined, hard-scrabble players who refused to knuckle under.

Which makes sense. Gallagher is a baseball guy with a Marine-service background.

“Basically, this happened five years ago when I took the job,” said Gallagher, who will lead the No. 4-seeded Crusaders (25-4) against No. 6 seed Glide (22-6) at 5 p.m. at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. “One thing I noticed about the kids is they had decent athletes, but there was no winning culture, no identity.”

He told the faculty, players and parents the first order of business was “to learn how to win,” he said. And they’d do it by playing hard.

A parent, Craig Bramscher, whose son Bryce is a senior outfielder and pitcher, reminded Gallagher of his speech.

“Last week, he said, ‘I remember when you made that speech,’” said Gallagher. “He said, ‘I thought, this guy is crazy. Does he know where he is?’”

The vision of grandeur didn’t end there. The confident Gallagher, a former Division I player at New Mexico State, told the assemblage that St. Mary’s would be in the state championship game in four years and win it in five.

The Crusaders came up short by one game in Year 4, losing in the semifinals last year to Santiam Christian.

But they’ve now cleared that hurdle and are in position to make good on the five-year plan. If successful, it would be their first state title since 1982.

Prior to Gallagher taking over, St. Mary’s was coming off five- and six-win seasons. From 2006-12, the Crusaders were 54-92 and had two winning campaigns.

In the five years since under Gallagher, they are 105-37 and haven’t won fewer than 17 games in a season.

In the last two years, St. Mary’s is 52-6.

“The coaches down there have done a great job of getting St. Mary’s back on the map a little bit,” said first-year Glide coach Jeff Freeman, “and we’re excited to play them.”

Told St. Mary’s hadn’t won state since ‘82, Freeman exclaimed, “That’s back when I started in high school.”

The Wildcats built their own winning tradition under longtime coach Al Skinner. They won state in 2014 and were runners-up last year.

“This is the third time in four years they’ve been there,” Freeman said of his seniors, “so it shouldn’t be a shock to them.”

St. Mary’s has played Glide twice this season, winning the season opener at home, 7-2, as Brandon Letendre pitched a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts and Bramscher drove in three runs, two with a double.

Glide’s Trevor Melhoff, the Mountain Valley Conference player of the year, started and took the loss. He will also be the starter in the title game.

In the teams’ second meeting three weeks later, host Glide scored five runs in the sixth inning for a 10-5 victory.

Travis Danielson was the first of three Crusader pitchers who allowed a total of seven hits and were hurt by three errors. Danielson also rapped two doubles.

On Friday, Gallagher has the option of starting either Letendre (12-0, 1.28 ERA) or Danielson (3-0, 154 ERA). Joe Johnson, who has an 8-3 record and a team-leading 0.43 ERA, is available for up to 25 pitches because of pitch-count limitations and could be called on in relief.

Gallagher said Thursday he’s leaning toward starting Danielson.

“I think he matches up better with this team, and he’s rested pretty much all season,” said the coach. “He has a little more pop going in.”

Letendre and Johnson would be in line if needed, he said.

Johnson leads the Crusaders in hitting with a .524 average. It was his three-run home run in the fifth inning Tuesday that lifted St. Mary’s to a 3-2 semifinal victory over Stanfield/Echo.

Johnson has six home runs, sharing the team lead with Danielson, and is tops with 35 RBIs and 14 doubles. He shares the lead in triples with Calder Pruhliere, each with five.

Danielson (.452) leads in runs with 45, followed by Letendre (41) and Johnson (40). He also has a dozen doubles.

Pruhliere is hitting .437, Letendre .400, Daniel LaFond .396 and Ben Robinson .373.

As a team, the Crusaders are batting .357.

Melhoff pitched a six-hitter in a 10-2 quarterfinal win over Dayton. Glide used up No. 2 pitcher Kyle Leischner in a 9-5 semifinal win over Pleasant Hill.

“We match up well,” said Gallagher. “It’ll be a slugfest, I think. Neither pitcher is overpowering. Whoever spots the ball better is going to be more successful. There will be a lot of fastballs, and a lot of balls will be put in play. There shouldn’t be a lot of Ks (strikeouts) on the board.”

The Wildcats’ top hitters are Zach Holland (.421), Leischner (.414), Ryland Parazoo (.345), Melhoff (.333) and Rylan Black (.321).

Once the weather turned this spring and Glide got outside regularly for practice, said Freeman, it got its rhythm.

“Right now we’re playing as well as we’ve played all year,” he said.

— Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@mailtribune.com

St. Mary's High baseball coach Sean Gallagher, lower left, and rallies his team during practice on Thursday. The Crusaders go for their first state championship in 35 years Friday against Glide. [JAMIE LUSCH/MAIL TRIBUNE]