Crook County wins play-in game before dropping close game to North Marion in the first round of the state playoffs

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Kyle Knudtson delivers a pitch in the final home game of the year. Knudtson led the Cowboys in innings pitched with 56 and in strikouts with 68. He gave up just 21 earned runs in his 11 appearances. Knudtson also batted .316 during the league season, helping to make the Cowboys one of the top offensive teams in the state.It was a big year for the Crook County High School baseball team.

The Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season, then after a short dry spell, won six of their final eight games as they reached the state playoffs for the first time in more than 20 years.

"What pleased me the most is the way that the team bonded towards the end of the year, and we got close during the playoffs," Crook County head coach Frank Martinez said. "Coming together as a team was a big deal, and making the playoffs felt awesome."

The Cowboys started the season slowly as defensive woes led to some unnecessary loses.

After six games, the Cowboys had just two victories.

The team began to play better during spring break at the Madras Invitational, which they won.

Riding that momentum, the Cowboys then rolled to victory in their first four league contests.

Then, the defensive struggles returned as errors cost the team a game against Molalla and two games against Gladstone.

Those losses proved to be costly as the Cowboys plunged in the power rankings.

The end result was that even though they reached the playoffs, Crook County had a bad draw, playing the No. 1-ranked team in the state in the first round.

Meanwhile, Gladstone, who was fortunate to defeat Crook County, went on to earn a bye into the first round of the playoffs, and ultimately won the state championship.

The Cowboys wound up third in the Tri-Valley Conference with a 9-6 league record and a 16-11 overall mark.

Still, it was the most successful season for Crook County baseball in years.

Adding to the optimism for the Cowboys is that the team loses just six players to graduation, and several of those players did not play much down the stretch.

"Our seniors did a great job for us," Martinez said. "We had some ups and downs for our seniors, but they gave us some great leadership."

Two seniors in particular will be missed by the Cowboys.

Devin Wilson hit .380 for the season and an even more impressive .444 during the league season.

Starting the year as a designated hitter, Wilson moved into the defensive lineup at second base late in the year, and his glove helped stabilize the Cowboy defense.

Catcher Heath Pickhardt was also vital to the Cowboys' defense. With a strong arm behind the plate, few runners even tried to steal bases on the Cowboys during the year.

Pickhardt also pitched occasionally for the Cowboys, striking out 29 batters in just 26 innings of work, with four starts and seven total appearances.

In addition, Pickhardt led the Cowboys in RBIs with 30 and walks with 18, as well as scoring a team-high 31 runs. Pickhardt has signed to play for the University of Oregon.

Josh Norris was also a valuable contributor for the Cowboys, batting .402 for the season, while driving in 17 RBIs and scoring 30 runs. However, he was ineligible during the Cowboys play-in victory over La Grande and their playoff loss to North Marion.

Fellow senior Devin Bishop also missed a number of games but still was a major contributor when he played.

Bishop appeared in nine games as a pitcher, striking out 17.

In addition, he had a key hit against La Grande that brought in the winning run and propelled the Cowboys into the playoffs.

The remaining two seniors, Will Combee (injury) and Jacob Kasberger, played sparingly and both missed the end of the season, Combee due to injury.

Although the seniors will be missed, Martinez noted that the Cowboys have a lot of firepower returning.

Sophomore Kyle Knudtson hit .400 during the league season.

In addition, Knudtson was the team's go-to pitcher, throwing 56 innings, more than twice any other pitcher on the roster, while striking out 68 and giving up just 21 earned runs.

Outfielder Brody Connell also had a major impact for the Cowboys, hitting .316 for the season with 26 RBIs and 11 base on balls.

First baseman Garett Bernard was also productive at the plate, batting .316 with nine RBIs and 13 runs scored.

Other returning Cowboys who are expected to have a big impact next year are pitchers Augustus Williams and Carson Smith, infielder Diego Smith and outfielder Hunter Bishop.

Adding to the optimism, Martinez noted that the JV team also had several pitchers who showed promise as well as a number of big hitters who could move right into the varsity lineup.

"I feel pretty confident about the kids coming back," Martinez said. "They've got experience now, and they have gotten a taste of winning. Before, they were trying so hard not to lose, and now that they've got that feel of winning and have got that in their system, they know how to win."

Still, Martinez knows that a return trip to the playoffs will be difficult.

The Cowboys move up to Class 5A next year, making the season that much more difficult.

Although local teams Ridgeview and Redmond both struggled, finishing the year with 7-20 and 9-16 records, respectively, it should be noted that both Bend and Summit made deep playoff runs, and accounted for several Ridgeview and Redmond losses. The two schools, as well as Mountain View, move up to Class 6A next season.

Like Ridgeview and Redmond, The Dalles finished this year with a losing record, going just 3-9 in league and 6-19 overall.

However, the remaining two teams in the new league are potentially both very strong.

Pendleton won the Columbia River Conference this year, finishing the season with an 18-9 record, while Hood River Valley was also strong, ending the season with a 15-12 record.

Both teams reached the playoffs, with Pendleton making it to the quarterfinals.

Still, Martinez believes that the Cowboys can be competitive.

"We are playing 5A and 6A schools this summer because we are moving up," he said. "I think it's pretty important for us to get some wins in the summer ball to have our confidence up, but I feel pretty confident. The team worked hard all season long, and they battled through adversity. Hopefully, we can go into next season with the same mindset."

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