KEIZER, Ore. — While the Canby baseball team's season ended in a thorough 14-0 defeat at the hands of longtime Three Rivers League rival West Linn on June 7, the story of the Cougars season is something bigger than the single game.
The team's 2022 championship game appearance was the school's first in more than half a century, 62 years to be exact. In 1960 Canby lost to 4-0 against Seaside in the finals of the A-2 championship game and had wandered through the proverbial forest searching for another title berth since.
This season, the team made that happen. But it wasn't a sure thing.
The Cougars started out the season alternating wins and losses regularly. The team went 4-5 in non-league games and was approaching the postseason with an overall record of 11-12. It was after a 13-3 loss to Lake Oswego in the second game of a three-game series that Canby turned things around. According to Canby head coach J.J. Stolsig, it wasn't a moment of fire and brimstone; it was simply realizing that it was time to buckle down and play ball.
"It wasn't like we had to come in and have a heart-to-heart talk," Stolsig said. "The whole year, the group has been preparing to play really good at the end. They played really good baseball at the end. They found a way. This group is gritty, great competitors, they love each other and that goes a long way towards the end of the season."
Finding the way netted the team its most consistent run of play of the year. Canby won the third game against Lake Oswego and swept the three-game series against Oregon City to establish itself as the No. 14 overall seed heading into the playoffs.
Once in the playoffs, the Cougars defended home field against a solid Bend team 2-1 in the opening round. From there the team became road warriors, battling South Medford, Mountainside and Clackamas on enemy turf to reach the championship game.
According to senior Bryce Oliver, there was something special about those road trips leading to Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.
"Energy was pretty good (in the road games)," Oliver said. "We knew we needed to play the best games of baseball we had, and we did play the baseball we had. We left it all out on the field and it was pretty awesome to be a part of."
The championship game was originally supposed to be played Saturday, June 4 but was ultimately rained out and postponed to June 7. Having to wait an extra three days did not dampen the spirits of the Canby supporters who showed up in droves to cheer on the team. The community support was something not lost on Oliver.
"The support is like nothing other," Oliver said. "We've had so much support throughout the season, and it has been amazing. Even like through football and stuff this year, the Canby support is like no other."
Stolsig echoed his players sentiments.
"The community was awesome, we have a second to none community that supports their athletics and anything to do with the high school," Stolsig said. "It's sad to see it end but it was an awesome run."
Heading into the fourth and final game of the season against West Linn, Stolsig felt his team were as ready as they could be during warmups. It just so happened that the Cougars were getting the best West Linn had to offer on the night.
The Lions gave up just three runs and committed no errors while racking up 14 runs on 11 hits. West Linn junior pitcher Drew Talavs gave up just three hits and struck out 10 Canby batters from the bump.
"You got to tip your hat first, to them, to West Linn," Stolsig told reporters after the game. "Drew threw the heck out of the ball, and they hit the ball pretty well. If you were watching the game, you know we didn't play our best game, and we needed to. We just didn't, and that happens. Credit goes to them, they did really well."
Canby didn't get its first hit until the top of the fourth inning when Oliver singled on a hard ground ball to center field. West Linn had no issues getting runners across home plate, leading 8-0 by the time Oliver and fellow senior Kellan Oakes got their fourth inning hits.
Oliver, named Canby's player of the game after the contest, knew he needed to get Canby's offense going.
"I was up to bat, thinking square a ball up and get on base," Oliver said. "Trying to look for a fastball, I did, connected on one, hopefully get a spark of something going."
Ultimately Canby wound up getting routed, but the journey that Oliver, Oakes and the seniors on the team made to get to the championship game formed a strong bond. Stolsig, fighting through tears after the game, acknowledged as such.
"These guys, 11 seniors, they really care about each other and that's what allowed us to go on this run, was love," Stolsig said. "We're dudes, we still tell each other that we love each other. Guys just changed the trajectory of the program, from the freshman year until now. A lot of good moments with these guys, they really battled, credit to them."
It was the team's bond that allowed them to reach the pinnacle of 6A baseball, according to Oliver.
"All of these seniors and everyone on this team have gelled together for so long, we've always been a really good, clicking team," Oliver said. "We've had that camaraderie with each other, we were like brothers. I think we're a lot different like that than other teams, I think that's what helped us this year."
Canby ends its season with an overall record of 19-13, but the true accomplishment was making the journey in the first place. The last time the Cougars baseball team reached a championship game, John F. Kennedy was president. The last time the team reached the semifinals of the state tournament, Bill Clinton was president. Canby proved it can compete with the best in the state.
It is as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "life is a journey, not a destination."
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