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Strong pitching and timely defense have lifted No. 1 Huskies to best start in more than a decade

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The North Marion baseball team takes to the field. The North Marion baseball team returned from central Oregon this week with a pair of victories to bump their record to 7-0 this season.

The Huskies beat Joe High School 2-0 on Friday and followed with a 6-4 win in extra innings over Joe High School on Saturday. The standings will state that the wins came against No. 2 Henley and No. 7 Madras, respectively, but in North Marion's dugout, those victories, the five that came before them, and the 15 games left on the schedule all are against Joe High School.

"We even have a schedule that is printed up and it has all our games listed," head coach Randy Brack said. "Everyone on the schedule is Joe High School."

It's something that Bracks' sons, assistant coaches Tucker and Ty, came up with. Everyone on the schedule is Joe High School, and everyone on the opposing roster is Joe Baseball Player. The Bracks want their players focusing less on who they're playing against and more on how they are playing.

So when the Huskies traveled to Madras over the weekend and played against the No. 2 Henley Hornets — a team that has been to five straight 4A championship games, winning titles in 2016, 2014 and 2013 — the North Marion players didn't say a word about it.

"We don't even mention the team that we're playing. The teams we play against are just nine guys named Joe." Brack said. "Each game is just another game. Let's do what we're supposed to do and we'll give ourselves the best opportunity to win."

The results speak for themselves. North Marion is off to its best start in a decade, putting up a 7-0 record to earn the No. 1 slot in the OSAA rankings after the first two weeks of the season.

And the Huskies aren't doing it against a bunch of cupcakes either. Their last four wins have come against teams ranked in the top 10 whose only loss have been to North Marion. Six of the seven teams they've beaten made the postseason last year.

The only one who didn't — No. 7 Madras — pushed the Huskies further than any other team this season in a 6-4 game that North Marion needed nine innings to put away.

"They're going to be a team down the road that people are going to have to recon with," Brack said. "They are going to be very, very good this year."

SUBMITTED PHOTO - North Marion junior Griffin Henry pitched a complete game shutout on Friday, holding the No. 2 Henley Hornets to two hits while striking out eight. The one common denominator across every win this season has been the Huskies' pitching. Led by junior Griffin Henry, North Marion's entire staff has been throwing the ball extremely well this season. Henry has been lights out through the first two weeks, including the game against Henley in which he threw a complete game shutout while striking out eight batters and surrendering just two hits — in the snow.

"I've seen him pitch some really good games in the past, but that is one of the better games I've seen him pitch," Brack said. "He was in total command, his focus was great. The conditions weren't great. It snowed for six of the seven innings, but you would have thought it was sunny and 70 the way the kids played. "

In three starts this season, Henry has struck out 23 batters and given up five hits and one earned run in 16 innings. Fellow starters Trevor Ensign and Grant Henry have combined to give up seven hits and no earned runs in 14 innings. When Brack turns to his bullpen, the team has seen little dropoff between relievers Ryan Olson, Milo Bilyeu and Brady Hansen.

"I think our pitchers have done a really good job of trying to control the strike zone, not overthrow," Brack said. "We just really preach trying to hit the other guys' bat. We're trying to make them put balls in play. We're just telling pitchers to challenge them and let us make plays."

The defense has largely stepped up and done its job, backing up the pitching staff and preventing any big runs by opposing teams. The Huskies are allowing just 1.57 runs per game and have limited opposing teams to two runs or less in all but one game — the recent win over Madras.

Of course no coach is 100 percent satisfied at this point in the season, and Brack sees plenty of opportunity to see his team get even better as the season progresses.

"It's interesting because we've got a ton of room for improvement," Brack said. "We haven't played what I would call a complete game yet."

The Huskies have committed 17 errors in their hot start, and the team is scoring a relatively modest 4.86 runs per game, though Brack credits some of that to the quality of competition the team has played against thus far.

"We've played just some outstanding teams," Brack said. "The quality of pitching that we've faced – I don't remember seeing this many good arms this early in the season."

Not that it'll get much easier in the weeks to come. Although the rest of the Oregon West Conference has gone just 5-16 in non-conference play so far, Brack is not sleeping on any team on the remaining schedule.

"There's some quality teams and quality pitching in the league," he said. "I'm really happy to see the number of good teams. It's making me feel good that we've got a bunch of really good baseball teams out there now at our level."

The Huskies will close out their non-conference schedule this week with a trio of road games — one scheduled against 6A Jesuit on Monday and a double header at Sisters on Wednesday against 3A Dayton and the hosting Outlaws — before coming home to host Scappoose on Saturday.

Then North Marion will descend into league play against Newport on April 2, though as far as the Huskies are concerned, it'll be just another series against Joe High School.

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