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Despite strong preseason, competitive opening to league, Molalla team fell apart late in league

PMG FILE PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Molalla's defense was sturdy until the second half of the league season. Things were looking good for Molalla's baseball team at about the midway point of last season. The team was 9-7 after a solid preseason, and competitive outings against Tri-Valley Conference (TVC) powerhouses North Marion and Gladstone. The team even put together an impressive four game win streak in the conference, outscoring Estacada, Corbett, and Madras a combined 57-13 in that time.

Then, the wheels came off. Molalla lost a close encounter with Madras, and subsequent drubbings against Madras, Gladstone, North Marion, and Estacada pushed the upstart squad from the postseason conversation.

"I thought I had them mentally prepared, fundamentally where it would be a matter of our talent versus their talent," Molalla head coach Jim Dantona said. "We didn't have the pitching that Gladstone or North Marion had, but I believe we had every bit as good of hitters or better than they did in a lot of key situations. We just collapsed. I've been in the game a long time, and I've coached since I was 21 or 22, and it happens, but it doesn't happen a lot."

While there wasn't a clear sign as to where the collapse began, offensive struggles did not seem to be the root cause of it. The team still managed to finish with 194 runs scored by the end of the season. The difference appeared to be defensively.

In only two games during that 1-7 skid did Molalla lose by more than 10 points: once to eventual league champion North Marion, and once to state quarterfinalist Gladstone. The other games were determined by single digits, and the dagger that sealed the deal was Molalla's own defensive errors.

"We were missing a lot of normal plays and not having results we should have from what we taught and they learned," Dantona said. "These were some of my veteran ballplayers. I only had a couple of seniors, so I'm also talking about my juniors and my sophomores. I really believed that, leading against North Marion in the last inning, and Gladstone too…Our pitching was solid, but when you give them two or three key errors in an inning, you're giving them five, six, or seven outs. If you do that against North Marion or Gladstone, you're going to get burned."

Solid though the pitching may have been, it was another area Dantona wants to work with his team in the offseason. Dantona will bring in old friend and former collegiate pitcher in to work with his stable of pitchers to increase depth on the mound.

"He's a heck of a pitching coach, and hitting coach," Dantona said. "But he'll be working with my pitchers because I think that's where we need the most work, but he's really, really good. I'm flying him up and we're going to work a good couple of weeks, and we're going to work on some fundamentals. It helps a lot to get that kind of a guy in to get some insights."

The team will also be playing summer ball to stay active and incorporate the lessons learned into live game situations, and Dantona believes that the experience of summer play combined with mentally overcoming the hardships of last season will have turned his team into successful veterans next season.

"I think the kids will step it up," Dantona said. "I'm an optimist. Somewhere in those losses we learned some things. I think this team has turned themselves around and really fallen in love with the game. These kids are excited for next year. I'm proud of these kids. They're good kids, they work hard, and I think the maturity next year will be different. I think these kids can do it."

Molalla's summer play will kick off on June 20, according to coach Dantona. The team finished with a 10-14 overall record last year, and was 5-10 in the TVC, snagging the No. 4 spot.

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