Wednesday night was a night that members of the Crook County High School baseball team won't soon forget as the Cowboys played a pair of doubleheaders against teams from the Australian-based World Baseball Showcases.
"I grew up in Portland, Oregon, but my dad retired to Central Oregon after I was in high school," said Australian head coach Steve Fish. "I have lived in Australia the last 10 years and have been doing this trip for about eight years now. It's just the most beautiful part of America for me, and I always wanted to bring the kids back to my roots."
The Australian group has four baseball teams currently in Oregon, including the pair who played in Prineville. Those teams range in age and ability from about the level of a reasonably skilled high school team to an advanced team whose players expect to move on to either college or professional baseball.
The teams who came to Prineville included a 15-17-year-old group and a 16-18-year-old group.
The younger group played against a team made up of Crook County JV players and middle schoolers, taking 15-0 and 18-6 wins, while the older team took on the Cowboy varsity team and came away with 12-1 and 14-2 wins.
Although the scores were somewhat lopsided, Crook County's coaches were still pleased.
"It was great playing against that group," said Jay Connell, who coached the high school varsity team. "They play baseball the right way. Our kids played pretty well in points, and we are making progress. More importantly though, our guys got a firsthand view of how to play baseball, encourage each other positively and have fun the whole time."
Amanda Taylor, the spokesperson for the younger Cowboy team, was also pleased with the opportunity.
The boys all absolutely loved it," she said. "They had a blast even though it didn't quite go the way that they had hoped. They are kind of hoping for a rematch next year. It was a good learning experience, and it's always fun to be able to play someone from another culture and another country — continent for that matter."
The Australian-based team, which has players from Guam and Dubai as well as Australia, certainly knew how to have fun.
Players ribbed each other over occasional mistakes and were loud and boisterous in the dugout.
Following the games, they posed for photos with the Crook County teams before voting on the player who made the biggest mistake in the game.
That player had to remove his baseball uniform and don a blue dress before posing for photos with team members. Team captain Sam Collier explained the process to the Crook County players before the Australian team voted for the player to don the dress. Darian Noll ended up with the distinction.
Although they were clearly having fun, the Australian team was also very serious about baseball.
Many of the players hope to continue their baseball careers in either college or the pros, and they demonstrated that they have the skills to play at an advanced level.
"My dad is Canadian, and my mom is Singaporean, and somehow we ended up in Dubai," said Matthew Sproule, one of the players on the Australian team. "Australia came to Dubai for a baseball tournament about six years back, and I think they saw a few players that they liked, so they took three of our guys. Now, fast forward three more years, and they came back and took another six of us, and I was one of those, so here I am now. This is my third time traveling to the U.S. with this team."
Sproule added that the competition in Australia and in the U.S. is much higher than what he is used to in Dubai.
"In Dubai, we really don't have a lot of kids that take baseball seriously. It's tough, but that's what we are here for. We are here to challenge ourselves and to grow as ball players."
The Australian team struggled some early in their tour of the U.S. but have come on strong late in the trip. Now in their third week playing ball, the team has gone on a winning streak of late, with the younger program recently winning a tournament and the older team entered in a tournament which began Thursday in Bend.
"We haven't come away with a gold medal yet," said Collier. "But hopefully in the next tournament that we start tomorrow, we come away with a gold medal. I think that we play a much more aggressive game back home. Running the bases, the way we play, the way we are on the bench. We are much more hyped and have much more banter thrown around out on the field. We like to play with much more heart and have much more fun."
With players from Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne as well as Dubai and Guam, it has taken the team some time to gel.
"It's a very multicultural team," said Lachlan Brear, who is on his third baseball tour of the United States. "It's really difficult at first because you don't know anyone and everyone is real quiet at first — they don't really want to say much. But once we have those long bus trips where we can bond, the team just gets really close, and we are able to play better baseball because of it."
"It's a little daunting at first," added Sproule of playing with people who you don't really know. "But they are great guys, and we get along really well. I think that we are really gelling now. This just prepares you for the next level. I mean everybody has got a different goal out here. Some want to play college, and there are a couple who are just out here because they love baseball, and some of us just want to get better and have an opportunity to play."
Kenji McCarthy, who comes from Guam, said that playing with the Australian team and against U.S. teams was a big jump at first.
"I ended up playing for the Guam 18 under national team, and we had a tournament in Australia earlier this year," he said. "Coach Fish told me and two other boys to come over and play for this summer ball team before we go to college. It's awesome playing with all these guys and playing against this competition. You don't get that in Guam, where there are going to only be a couple of teams and you have been playing with them since elementary. This is a lot more fast paced."
Collier added that although playing good baseball is important and that most of the players want to continue playing after high school, that isn't all the trip is about.
"There are people on this team that you will never forget," he said. "Even though there are a lot of us that are from Australia that aren't from the same state, we will always remember each other. And the people here are great. Everyone we have met so far is pretty great."
Fish said that he expects to bring another set of teams to Oregon again next year and that the biggest difference between teams in Australia and teams in Oregon is the number of games that players get to participate in.
"If you watch our kids, they will have pretty close to the same movements as most of the American kids, just the database is a lot different because they don't have the same amount of at bats over the course of their careers or the same amount of innings on the mound."
Fish explained that most Australians get to play just one game a week, while Americans play three, four, or even more games during the course of a week. By the end of three or four years, that equals a lot more experience playing the game.
However, Fish knows that the Australian team can still compete successfully.
"You can tell by the movements that they have a lot of coaching," he said. "There are a lot of major leaguers that work with the kids and several of us have played professional baseball, so it's just getting game repetitions where they lack."
Bringing players to Oregon gets them a year's worth of games in just three weeks, while also giving the team a cultural experience.
"It can be tough the first week," Fish said. "They don't have that practice time together, and we literally start playing games immediately when we get here. Some of the kids aren't used to playing with certain individuals, so anytime you blend a new team together it can be tough the first week until you start getting grounded and understand what each type of player does and what position each player plays, but it's been great, and we hope to just keep coming back for more."