The Crook County High School baseball team reached the state playoffs for the second consecutive year, despite moving up from Class 4A to Class 5A.
"I'm satisfied that we stepped up into 5A, and like I told the guys, we are playing at a totally different level of competition than they were last year," Crook County head coach Kramer Croisant said. "Now we need to step it up from here."
Moving up to Class 5A may seem like a small difference, however, the last time the Cowboys were in the Intermountain Conference, they struggled to be competitive.
From 2007 to 2010, the Cowboys were a combined 18-80 with just a 7-63 league record.
This year, the team finished with a 15-12 overall mark and a 9-6 league record, virtually identical to the team's 16-11 and 9-6 record while playing in the Class 4A Tri-Valley Conference in 2018.
Both years saw the Cowboys finish third in conference play and reach the first round of the state playoffs.
Although they came close to reaching the playoffs in 2015, 2012 and 2011, falling in play-in games, prior to 2018, the team had not reached the playoffs in more than 20 years.
Not only did the Cowboys reach the playoffs for the second consecutive year, they showed that they could play with the top teams in the state, leading second-ranked Crescent Valley midway through their playoff game, before a series of errors let the game slip away.
In addition, the Cowboys were competitive with the league champion Pendleton Buckaroos, who finished second in the state. The Cowboys took one game from the Buckaroos and dropped another in extra innings. Even the third game against the Buckaroos was close. In fact, over the three-game series, the Cowboys actually outscored the Buckaroos 21-19.
Croisant, who was in his first year as head coach, inherited a team that should have been largely intact from the previous year. However, several members of that varsity team did not play in 2019, leaving the Cowboys with a young team.
Just three Cowboys graduated off of this year's team, leaving Croisant optimistic that the team will continue to be strong well into the future.
"I think the future is going to be good for Crook County baseball," he said. "Thanks to the seniors for laying the foundation for the program, and I think that we just build from here."
Those seniors, Hunter Bishop, Carson Smith and Diego Smith, have all been on the Cowboy varsity roster for each of the last four seasons.
Carson Smith led the Cowboys in batting this season with a .400 average and also led the team in RBIs with 14, doubles with seven and slugging percentage with a .580.
Bishop had just a .194 batting average but had an on-base percentage of .408 and led the Cowboys in runs with 18.
Diego Smith finished the year with a .163 batting average and a .280 on-base percentage.
"All three seniors have really stepped up and been great leaders for us and played really well, and I will always be grateful for those seniors," Croisant said.
Despite losing three significant players to graduation, the Cowboys will still be loaded with talent next year.
Junior Kyle Knudtson had a .380 batting average, a .466 on-base percentage, 11 RBIs and 12 runs scored. He also was the team's top pitcher with a 2.80 earned-run average.
Sophomore Luis Duran, who hit .324 and had a .490 on-base percentage, also returns. Duran also showed promise as a pitcher, pitching more innings than anyone on the Cowboys' staff except for Knudtson and finishing with a 4.315 ERA.
Catcher Brody Connell also returns. Connell finished with a .319 batting average, a .450 on-base percentage and scored 16 runs for the Cowboys, while directing the team's defense.
Pitcher Clayton Wilkens also returns. Wilkins finished the year with a 3.375 ERA, in 18.2 innings of work.
Other returning players include first baseman Garett Bernard, outfielder Ethan Cossitt, pitcher Justin Smith, first baseman Matthew Delapena and outfielder Trentyn Maryanski.
Croisant noted that the key to improvement for next season is the amount of time that players put in during the off season.
Both Knudtson and Connell are playing baseball this summer for the Bend Bucks, while other players are playing for BOSS baseball and Sun West baseball, both traveling teams that will play tournaments throughout the summer.
In addition, Croisant hopes to play a limited summer baseball season in Prineville.
"I think the work starts in the off season," Croisant said. "And it is up to our juniors to lead that. What we are putting together for our summer program will be tailored more for the younger kids to develop talent, while those playing for other programs that should be more competitive."
Although the summer program is important, Croisant said that it is the winter work that can make all the difference.
"January and February when we start going with our winter stuff is really important," he said. "Open cages and all that stuff. You can take more time on one-on-one stuff. Once practice starts, we've got two weeks to get going for our first game, and it's hard to start breaking down swings and making big changes, so winter is really important."
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