In the Bleachers with Billy

This summer has been one heck of a ride for Jefferson County Little League.

Two teams, the junior softball and intermediate 50/70 baseball teams, claimed district championships and represented District 5 at state tournaments.

Not only did both teams play well, with the intermediate boys earning a trip to the West regional in Irvine, Calif., but it gave the community something to rally around.

Every summer, some of the area’s finest ballplayers hit the field and capture the hearts of fans with their play, and this go-round doubled the fun with a pair of teams making it out of the district.

I’ll start with the softball team, and while it’s unfortunate its season came to an end before the state championship game, there is still plenty for the team (and fans) to be proud of.

Amidst having to be four different places at once during the district tournaments for all age groups in Bend, I was able to sit down and watch the junior girls build a big lead against Hermiston (full disclosure, that team was coached by a very good friend of mine), then lose the lead, and eventually lose the first game of the tournament.

A lot of teams featuring teenage girls would have panicked and squandered the next game, and would have been sitting home while other teams kept having fun playing. But this group of girls saw an opportunity to bounce back, rather than feel sorry for themselves and go quietly.

Following a close 5-3 win against Warm Springs Nation to stay alive in the tournament, the next two games Jefferson County won with a combined score of 45-8. That’s correct, 45 runs in two games.

The JC team hung 34 runs on Crook County, obviously taking it personally that they played a close game earlier, and then avenged the loss to Hermiston with an 11-2 victory.

The team completed a remarkable 5-0 run through the loser’s bracket with two wins against Columbia, one of the traditional district softball powerhouses, 10-7 and 12-5, to win the district championship.

That’s not an easy thing to do, folks. To come back through the bottom bracket like JC did is reason enough to pump your fist and show your team colors.

I was fortunate enough to be on a team that came really close to doing just that in Little League. I played for Willow Creek, which sadly no longer exists as it combined with Deschutes to make John Day River. After we beat Jefferson County in the first game (please forgive me), we lost a tough one to Bend North. So, to the bottom bracket we went, and then we gave our fans a crazy ride through the loser’s bracket. We even made new fans along the way, too.

We played eight games in eight days, taking out Sisters, Hermiston, Redmond, Bend North and Crook County on our way to face The Dalles in the championship game. We lost that game, but the way we went through the tournament was something I’ll never forget.

I remember it like yesterday, and it happened 15 years ago.

I made friends I will have for the rest of my life, formed bonds that will withstand all time and had the time of my life. That’s what playing Little League is all about, and it’s nice to see another group of young people get to experience the same thing.

The intermediate boys are doing much of the same, but they are in a place a Madras team hasn’t been since 2006 – the regional tournament.

While they haven’t had the best luck there, losing 15-0 to Nogales, Ariz., and 13-4 to Boundary County, Idaho, they are still there representing Oregon, and doing a fine job.

The regional tournament is such a huge step from anything the team has experienced. District and state competition pales in comparison to regional games. It’s not even in the same discussion, quite frankly.

When a team gets to a regional tournament, they have absolutely no idea what to expect, other than the teams they are going to play are very good.

Teams from Arizona, California and Hawaii – three powerhouse states when it comes to producing high-quality youth baseball teams – can play year-round and have every opportunity to succeed on the diamond. A lot of the players specialize and just play baseball, since they usually come from suburbs of metropolitan areas and go to large schools.

The kids here, and great kids they are, pray it doesn’t rain in March and April so they can go play. During the winter, it’s time for heavy coats and stocking caps, rather than mesh jerseys and ball caps. It’s also time for basketball, wrestling, swimming and other sports throughout the year that everyone is involved in, since it’s a small community and a lot of the best baseball players are good hoops or football players, too.

There is a lot working against our JCLL kids, but they don’t care. They go out and play their hardest, leave everything on the field and don’t let themselves down.

They have two games left in pool play at regionals, then in all likelihood, will be coming back home before the championship game.

That doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that this all-star season is a failure. It is a great success, and the team is blazing a trail for teams after them to follow.

Jefferson County should celebrate both teams, and look forward to sending more teams on epic road trips and supporting fundraisers. It’s how small communities like this one keep the fire going.

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