Forest Grove, Hilhi join forces on the diamond
Things are getting tough for baseball. In a time when there are more sports to play and more time required from kids to play them, "America's pastime" seems to be getting the short end of the proverbial stick in regards to participation.
With OIBA (Oregon Independent Baseball Association), American Legion and club teams like Mound Time and Northwest Diamond Sports, the pool of potential players for summer teams is thinning by the year.
Hillsboro High School and Forest Grove have not escaped that phenomena. With dwindling numbers in recent years, Spartans head coach Bob Berent and Vikings head coach Justin Engeseth were forced to get creative when it came to fielding a team this summer. Their answer? A combination of the two schools' talent.
"It was really sort of the culmination of what's going on with baseball in the area," Berent said. "There were lower than average numbers, games were being cancelled — and it wasn't providing the type of atmosphere we want in order to provide the opportunities for our kids to advance and get better. So I talked with some people I trust in baseball and threw out ideas, and the solution was to find a team who might be in a similar situation as us."
That team was Forest Grove.
"I talked with the other Hillsboro schools because that would obviously be a natural fit, but then I talked to Justin and he said they were a little low as well, and here we are."
Engeseth cited various reasons behind his willingness to work with Hillsboro — declining numbers being the primary one — but was quick to point out that this is a statewide problem and not just an issue in western Washington County.
"We have seen programs like Beaverton, Tigard (and) Valley (Catholic) be forced to cancel older OIBA groups and we are all in the same boat with more and more competition," Engeseth said. "We hope that with this, with a possible legion team option in the future, we'll be keeping up with or leading the curve."
The majority of the players, as well as the two coaches, knew little of each other to start. They were familiar with their work and their programs, but had little to no relationship. That all changed as the process began, but it wasn't seamless, as there was a bit of a feeling-out process for both the kids and coaches.
"It's worked out really well," Berent said. "It was slow to start because we had to work out the communication thing and initially, we stood over here, they stood over there, but over time it worked itself out and after the kids got on the field they realized, 'hey, this is just baseball.'"
Forest Grove has roughly five kids playing, give or take dependent upon potential conflicts, and Hillsboro has eight. Positions have been decided based primarily on performance, but also with development in mind.
"One thing we did as coaches was to talk about specific kids who we/they have projected at certain positions, then try to accommodate them/us getting that kid in that spot," Berent said. "And we want to do that. It hasn't always worked out, but we've tried to do that as much as possible."
That type of cooperation has been one of the bright spots of the combined experience, one of a number of positives that have come from the highly successful experiment — at least so far.
"I'm super happy with how the coaching staffs have worked together," Berent said. "I've learned stuff from Justin, and I hope he's learned a couple things from me. Their demeanor is a little different than the guys on my staff, and I know my team is really going to benefit from this next year."
The summer is an extremely important time for the development of high school players and programs, but how they approach it is often very different. Part of the challenge of the Hillsboro/Forest Grove co-op has been deciding what to focus on. Reps? Games? Situational aspects? They're all important, and all methods to getting better.
"All of those you want to cover, but with only 25 to 35 games, it can be difficult to narrow a focus," Engeseth said. "For Forest Grove, we have some quiet kids and an older group of leaders on this team, and I believe this combination will help them as they enter next spring and join a new set of teammates following the next level."
And what about next year? In a perfect world, both schools would be able to field teams of their own, but considering the landscape and the success of this year's squad, both coaches seem more than willing to continue if need be.
"As of right now, we'll definitely revisit going forward with this next year," Berent said. "I'd certainly be open to it. I'd work with these guys again in two seconds."
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