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Local all-star squad battles all the way back to the championship bout after dropping opener

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Raleigh Hills shortstop Nelson Keljo celebrates a big run against La Grande last week.

Too watered down.

Not nearly deep enough.

Raleigh Hills heard all the pessimism about its chances at the Oregon Junior League State Championship tournament last week. Many were surprised when Raleigh Hills made it out of District Four, winning its first district title in more than a decade.

The slights, however, served the Beaverton-area based ball club as kerosene. An early round loss to La Grande was just the match Raleigh Hills needed. The all-star squad made up of 13- and 14-year-olds scrapped back to the consolation round with grit and guile, winning four straight consolation bracket games to soldier back to the championship game for a rematch with La Grande.

Needing to beat La Grande twice to take home the title, Raleigh Hills ended up on the wrong side of a vintage 2-1 pitchers' duel between La Grande's Sam Tsiatsos and Raleigh Hills' Haden Eiguren on July 18 at Beaverton High School. The contest was a pitching-and-defense model, with both sides playing at their respective peaks on the bump and in the field.

"It was a true baseball battle," Raleigh Hills head coach Chuck Lindholm said. "There wasn't one play we felt we wanted back that cost us. Our kids played with great heart. That whole idea of never quitting is so true with our guys. They're good, quality kids toward each other and true sportsmen as well. We came as close you could get without a win."

Unfortunately for Raleigh Hills, somebody had to lose. But that by no means did that equate to a lost experience for the rising teens. La Grande routed Raleigh Hills 9-2 in the tournament opener, but the local all-stars responded, particularly with the bats. Raleigh Hills found ways to hit the ball, put it in play and force the defense to adjust. And as the games breezed by, Raleigh Hills found different sources of production be it at the plate, on the bump or in the field.

"In tournaments, you either get worse or you get better. And we got better," Lindholm said. "It's been a collective team effort these last couple of games. Guys that don't normally have to step up, stepped up. Every guy played whatever position was asked of them and did it with heart."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Raleigh Hills third baseman Henry Gwecke celebrates a key base hit against La Grande.

Raleigh Hills beat the odds and quieted the critics by sticking together and rising above the outside noise. As Hoffman pointed out, this elongated run is just "another tool to draw from" as they get older and keep learning to play sports the right way.

"It's been a blessing to be around these kids," Hoffman said. "We put in a lot of time and just get so much out of this. Seeing them as friends and how that moves them forward to other sports, school and other areas is something we truly enjoy. They're good young men. We desired to play in a gentlemanly way. And outside the lines, that's how we wanted them to conduct themselves."

La Grande got up 2-0 with runs in the first and second inning. But in the top of the fourth, Raleigh Hills' Nelson Keljo slapped a two-out double the opposite way to right and cruised into second base standing to keep the inning alive. Eiguren followed by floating a bloop single to center that dropped between La Grande's outfielders and shortstop to saw La Grande's lead in half, 2-1, scoring a high-stepping Keljo who danced into the Raleigh Hills dugout, celebrating the huge score.

Raleigh Hills third baseman Henry Gwecke gave a Tsiatsos fastball a ride, crushing a ball to that La Grande's center fielder made a great play on to prevent the tying run from scoring to end the inning. But a message had been sent. Raleigh Hills cut Tsiatsos and proved he's human. In the fifth, Raleigh Hills' Jake Lairson reached on a bloop single down the first base chalk.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Raleigh Hills pitcher Haden Eiguren was excellent on the mound, throwing seven innings of two-run ball against La Grande last week.

"You have to jump on opportunities against a great team like La Grande and that was our chance to seize the momentum swing," Lindholm said. "It's tough to sustain sometimes, especially when you're playing quick, athletic kids like La Grande has. I think they're going to go on and represent the state well."

Raleigh Hills used up both of its top-of-the-rotation aces to reach the title game and needed Eiguren to pitch long into to the championship tilt to keep hopes afloat. Not only did Eiguren carry the yoke, he dominated, going the distance with four strikeouts while leaning on Raleigh Hills defense that didn't commit an error. Eiguren was in total command, spinning off-speeds and tailing fastballs past the bulked up La Grande batting order.

"He was lights out," Lindholm said of Eiguren. "He has a great ability to hit his spots. Even if he missed one, he'd come right back in and get it. He's just a no-rattle kid. He's cool and calm."

In the bottom of the fourth, a La Grande baserunner was thrown out by Raleigh Hills catcher Ryan Hoffmann trying to steal second. In the fifth, Keljo, Gwecke and Lairson got Tsiatsos in an extended pickle and eventually ran the La Grande pitcher down for the second out while keeping the batter at first. Later in the fifth, with runners on the corners, two outs, and the hulking La Grade first baseman Nick Bornstedt at the plate, Eiguren induced a grounder to Gwecke who fired to first for the final out of the frame.

Eiguren singled in the seventh with one out, but in need of a run, Raleigh Hills' next two hitters struck out to end the contest.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Raleigh Hills shortstop Nelson Keljo had a key two-out double and later scored against La Grande.

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