Moving to a junior varsity-only schedule can sometimes feel like a step in the opposite direction for a high school athletic program — an acknowledgment that a team lacks the resources or personnel to compete against its peers.
Not so at Country Christian High School.
In fact, between the canceled 2020 season, the shortened 2021 campaign and a change in head coaches heading into this spring, the past two years have been an ideal time for the Cougars baseball team to hit the reset button and start anew.
"We're at a point where we're at the beginning of something great," first-year head coach Matt Haring said. "Our program is going to explode."
Haring joined the varsity program as an assistant last year under longtime skipper Garylee Syphard. A parent of two kids in the Country Christian schools, Haring had been coaching at the youth level for nearly a decade and Syphard tapped him as the heir-apparent to lead the Cougars.
"Coach Garylee approached me last year and asked if I could help him out as an assistant. He started the program 30 years ago and he was looking to get out," Haring said. "He says, 'I'd like to have you take over the program.'
"It's been his baby for 30 years. He wanted to give it to someone who can keep it going."
The uncertainty of the 2021 season, with teams coming in and out of quarantine while playing a six-week non-OSAA schedule was an ideal opportunity for the Cougars to move to a JV-only schedule. The team had no seniors, and while its young players boasted a wealth of athletic promise, few had much fundamental baseball experience to speak of.
"Honestly, most of the kids that we did have, outside of a couple, had never played baseball," Haring said. "They didn't know how to swing a bat, field a ground ball or catch a pop fly in the outfield."
The team went 1-8 against opposing junior varsity teams from the region last year, its one win coming against the nearby Colton Vikings toward the end of the season. But the players gained the experience they needed to compete at the varsity level, and Haring felt confident they were ready to be tested against some of the state's best teams this spring.
Meet the Cougars
Haring positively describes his group of players as a hodgepodge of potential.
"The talent is there, they just don't know how to use it," he said. "None of them have played varsity, even my seniors, because COVID screwed everything up."
Haring points to freshman Tanner Crandall as the undisputed most valuable player on the team, but leans on seniors such as Luke Stopper and Zeke Ewing to provide leadership.
"(Crandall) leads the team in pretty much every attribute," Haring said. "but Zeke and Luke are stepping up and hitting the ball as good as Tanner."
Of the team's 13 players, nine have seen time on the pitcher's mound, including sophomore Aaryn Hatton who is in the midst of her second season on the baseball team.
Hatton transferred to the Country Christian School District before the start of her high school career, but with no softball program to speak of, she was free to seek a nearby school to play with.
Instead, she opted to join the baseball team.
"She's absolutely one of the best athletes on the team," Haring said. "The girl is a go-getter and she throws as hard as anyone else on the mound."
Haring said Country Christian is in line to add a softball program next year, but that Hatton is committed to finish her high school career with the baseball team.
"She said, 'I'm a baseball player, I'm not going to play softball,'" Haring said. "She loves the game of baseball. She loves the competition."
Hatton has played in a variety of roles with the team over the past two seasons, and Haring expects her to be a regular starter as a junior and senior.
"Her confidence isn't there, but once she gains a little confidence, she's going to be unstoppable," he said. "She'll be the first all-league girl our school has ever had, probably that the league has ever had."
"I have the philosophy that for us to be successful, we need to compete with high level teams," Haring said.
From the opening pitch of the 2022 season, the Cougars have seen no lack of quality programs on the other side of the dugout.
Country Christian's strength of schedule through the first three weeks of the season would rival any other 2A/1A program in the state. Through its first 11 games, the Cougars faced five teams ranked in the top 15, four of which either outright lead or are tied at the top of their respective conference. The combined record of those teams is 52-12, winning at a clip of more than 81%.
But the Cougars have not been deterred.
Though the team lost those 11 games, none of the contests were decided by more than 11 runs. The team trailed No. 6 Dufur just 2-1 heading into the sixth inning before falling 6-1 on March 19. Country Christian has likewise taken No. 4 Western Christian and the Special District 2-leading Culver Bulldogs to full seven inning games.
"You see some of these scores where they're like 25-0, we haven't been anything close to that," Haring said. "We're still competing and recording outs to keep it from getting out of hand.
"Even when they've been kicked in the teeth in the first part of the season, they were still showing up and still getting better."
After weathering the storm, the winless Cougars entered the second half of the season looking to capitalize on the experience built over the first 11 games.
Facing the 0-6 Colton Vikings for a three-game series on April 14-15, Haring saw this as the opportunity the team had been building toward.
"We kept telling the kids coming into the Colton series, 'guys, these are winnable baseball games. You have to understand the quality of talent we've played up to this,'" Haring said.
The Vikings, no doubt, saw the same opportunity against the 0-11 Cougars, and the two teams combined to play their most competitive games of the season.
But each time, the Cougs came out on top. First with a 13-7 win on April 14, followed by back-to-back victories of 10-8 and 11-2, respectively, to sweep the series.
"For them to get their first win was huge," Haring said. "You could see it on Friday. They showed up to the game with a swagger, which in our aspect isn't being cocky, it's being confident but still having a Christian mindset behind it. They showed up with a confidence that it was no doubt they were going to win those games, and they proved it."
The team was hoping to carry that momentum through to the next week, but rain postponed their scheduled three-game series against the Sheridan Spartans.
When the Cougars return to the diamond, they'll face the defending state finalist and perennial championship-contender No. 2 Kennedy Trojans (12-2).
"Kennedy is a series that we are going to go out there and give it all we've got," Haring said. "There's no doubt they're a better baseball team. They're one of the best in the state."
If Country Christian can take a game or two against Kennedy to seven innings and show they can compete against a championship-caliber program, that will be enough of a confidence booster to lead the Cougars into the final two series of the season.
The team will face off against Santiam (6-4) on May 9-12 and are hoping to reschedule their games against Sheridan (0-7) to finish the year.
"I'm fully expecting to get wins out of them," Haring said. "Nine wins in our league is our goal. That is a huge success, (and) we are absolutely capable of doing it."
Going 9-9 in conference play would likely place the Cougars in fourth place behind Culver, Kennedy and Western Christian.
"They take three teams to state. If we can be in fourth place, that's absolutely huge for a team that was JV last year," Haring said.
Strength of schedule
Country Christian's first five opponents have combined for a record of 52-12.
No. 12 Regis: 12-3
No. 6 Dufur: 9-1
No. 5 St. Paul: 14-0
No. 4 Western Christian: 6-4
No. 15 Culver: 11-4
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