Madras baseball preview: Teammwork trumps talent
During the dog days of the 2017 summer, the Madras baseball team's greatest attribute wasn't its talent, but instead, its collective desire.
A handful of the White Buffalos' longest-tenured players weren't on the summer team, either playing a different sport, injured or busy with other commitments. More than half the team were freshmen or younger, and they still managed to win approximately half their games and be competitive in many of them.
The underclassmen set the tone through hard work in the offseason, as well as displaying the mental toughness to battle through the game's challenging moments.
"All we realized between last year during the (spring) season, and last year during the summer was, talent was insignificant in the outcomes of games," Madras head coach Sam McCormick said. "Did we win that many games? No, we probably went .500. But we overachieved our talent level, kept learning and didn't get frustrated. That's the mentality that they want."
And although Madras seems to have a better idea of what it takes to develop chemistry among players, the success of its upcoming season still hinges on talent and depth. The Buffs seem to have plenty of both.
Four Tri-Valley Conference players from last year — Lewis Fine, Cameron Rodriguez, Kanim Smith and Tyler Lockey — all return for one last go around as seniors, hoping to put together a season that leads to a playoff run. Junior Byron Patt has value as a utility player. Throw in a group of sophomores, including Liam White, Kody Zemke and Jeremiah Devore, who started most games at second base last season as a freshman, and the Buffs appear to have a strong foundation to build on.
McCormick said the roster will likely be capped at 12 or 13 players, but several positions are plenty up for grabs. Take for example, the two middle infield positions, where up to six guys are vying for starting spots.
"We have to do the best we can for the guy next to us every day," said McCormick, who's entering his sixth season as head coach. "And if that can be achieved, this can be a really, really good ball club. That's what we preach every single day."
The Buffs' 2017 spring campaign started slowly, as they lost 10 of their first 11 games, before gaining some traction during league to finish 6-9 and 7-16 overall. But they never fully got off the ground, and they believe a lot of it had to do with a lack of leadership and cohesion. Madras graduated only two people following last season. For the upcoming season to be different than last with similar personnel, they know where they need to improve.
"I just want to work together, better than last year, because we didn't work very well together," Rodriguez said. "We showed that skill doesn't show what teamwork and leadership can do. If we apply that teamwork and leadership, we can do anything."
So far, developing those elements appears to be a work in progress through two weeks of practice. There are many days when players are vocal, bringing a positive energy and picking teammates up. The next step is maintaining those voices consistently.
"Our mentality still needs to be improved, because we'll get down on ourselves if we make one little error," Lockey said. "Other than that, we're looking pretty good. Our practices are way better already than the years before … Everybody is just happy to be here I feel like. It's a fun environment."
With a mix of seniors intent on concluding their high school careers on a high note, plus an up-and-coming class of freshmen and sophomores, the Buffs' 2018 roster appears to have enough pieces to compete for a league title, and possibly loftier achievements. Beyond the results, however, this season appears to be just as important for establishing a culture that can be sustained and carried on beyond late May or early June.
"Culture lives on, and culture beats talent," said McCormick. "This year is the most talented team we've had, by far. You're not going to have that level every year, but when you have a good culture to follow it up, you can have less talent and overachieve. That's really what we want to create."
The Buffs open the season with a home game Wednesday against Bend JV, kicking off at 4 p.m., then hit the road Saturday to play Eagle Point at 2 p.m.