ST. PAUL — Summer baseball is a bit of an enigma in St. Paul.
Not only does football come first in the sports pecking order, working on the family farm is the main priority for most of the players when school is out, especially once harvest begins in July.
Add summer basketball in June, plus four days of football team camp and five days volunteering at the town's showcase event, the St. Paul Rodeo, and there are few opportunities to schedule games.
Coach Julio Vela doesn't have the benefit of playing in a summer league, so he takes games whenever and wherever he can get them.
This year was especially tough considering that an early start to harvest forced St. Paul to cancel its last three games of the season, but Vela still considers the summer a success because his team managed to make the most of the 12 games it played.
"This summer, one of the things we said was that we only graduated the one person, so our goal this summer is to get better," Vela said. "We wanted to go out there and get quality at-bats and quality throws, help each other learn the signs better, work on situations both offensively and defensively in a game atmosphere. That's going to benefit us going into next spring."
Although the Bucks (5-7) finished on a bit of a sour note, losing 21-7 to Newberg (16-3) July 12 in what turned out to be the season finale, Vela felt the team's summer was truly epitomized by a pair of doubleheaders against Tillamook and Neah-Kah-Nie and what they proved in those games will be what St. Paul carries forward into the offseason.
Having returned from four days of football camp the night before and looking ahead to five days of rodeo beginning that night, the players were pretty much exhausted on the morning of June 30 when Tillamook came to town.
"You could see it in their pace. You could see it in their eyes," Vela said. "But we said, 'Let's use this to our advantage. Let's see how hard we have to focus up when we are tired, when we are at the end of our rope, when we aren't feeling 100 percent. Let's go out there and use this.' And they did."
The Bucks were also without standout Justin Herberger, but still swept the doubleheader. To Vela, the most valuable part was a gain in maturity.
"They definitely weren't at 100 percent physically, but I think having an opportunity like that in a practice situation, really — they were games, but being summer ball no playoffs were on the line — it makes a big difference," Vela said. "I think that's going to play to our advantage next season."
Vela said the team's July 8 sweep of Neah-Kah-Nie shortly after the conclusion of the rodeo was important both emotionally and as a measuring stick, as the Pirates are a comparable 2A opponent that will likely be on the nonconference schedule in 2018.
Junior Jaidyn Jackson threw a complete game to power St. Paul to a 6-1 win in the first game, then the Bucks pulled out a dramatic 2-1 victory in the second game with the Pirates' all-conference pitcher Bryce Bridge on the mound.
The Bucks had their own ace, Herberger, who was named Tri-River Conference Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore in the spring, and he matched Jackson's effort with one-run, complete-game performance.
The two teams entered the seventh tied at 1-1 and sophomore Mitchell Curtis continued a strong summer campaign by hitting a one-out double. Elder brother and senior Spencer Curtis followed with a single to put runners at first and third and Vela then called for the squeeze with Logan Villarreall at the plate.
Villarreal fouled off the first pitch, but on the second made contact on a check swing, effectively producing the squeeze with a ball that dribbled down the first base line, where it was fielded by the pitcher, who could not stop the run scoring from third.
"That's the kind of thing you can hold on to," Vela said. "When we finished, we all felt good. This was a team that was our size, a team we will play against next year, and we did well. I think we played together. I think we had this expectation that if we do well, we'll win and that's a big deal."
Vela added that many of the team's established players, especially Herberger, Jackson and Campbell Smith, all had solid summers and confirmed to him that the top of the team's lineup is set for next spring.
Some of the other spots are still up for grabs and Vela hopes that once again a freshman or two will emerge to be a contributor, although none were able to play with the team over the summer for various reasons.
Vela has also encouraged his players to get out and attend camps, like the one at Western Oregon University, to get coached by other people, but also plans to distribute some offseason workouts so that the team will be better prepared to transition from basketball to baseball in 2018.
"Guys are shooting basketballs right until the day they come out for practice and two to three weeks in we've got a bunch of tired arms and sore arms," Vela said. "What we're going to try to do is give them a program that will hopefully help with that so that we come in a little bit stronger."