Dwayne Nowlin doesn't want to have a great season. He wants to build a great program.
Since taking over as head coach of the St. Paul High School baseball team five years ago, the Buckaroos have gradually gone from being a contender to making the playoffs to where that has become the norm.
"That's what my goal is — just get better every year," Nowlin said. "At the end of the year, just look in the mirror and say, 'I got better.'"
Nowlin began his tenure with the Bucks in the 2018 season, taking the reins from former head coach Julio Vela, who was instrumental in reviving the St. Paul varsity baseball program. The Bucks had recently staged their best season in program history, going 17-6 in 2016 to win a three-way share of the Special District 2 championship. That year's team made the state playoffs for the first time before bowing out in a first-round loss to the Waldport Irish.
The Bucks returned to the playoffs in 2018, falling in the first round once again. A year later, the freshman class of 2022 joined the team and saw St. Paul make history once again, earning its first-ever playoff win, a 2-0 tilt against the Santiam Wolverines.
Since then, nothing has been normal.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 season and the 2021 season consisted of a 13-game nonleague schedule scratched together against nearby teams. The Bucks went 9-4 in their slate but were not one of the eight teams invited to compete in the season-ending championship tournament. Their only losses came against two of those programs — Kennedy and Western Christian.
"Kennedy was in the championship last year," Nowlin said. "Western finished fourth in the state. Together those two teams were 30-6."
Despite playing just 13 games over two seasons, Nowlin and his coaching staff have strived to maintain a close bond with the baseball team and give the players a sense of pride in what they were building toward: a contender.
Not just a playoff contender, but a team that can challenge one of the most elite programs in the state. Two hours up the road between Portland and Astoria, the Knappa Loggers have built a dynasty. Under head coach Jeff Miller, the Loggers went to four straight championships from 2015 to 2018 and won state titles in 2010, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
"Knappa has won the league 10 years in a row," Nowlin said.
In that span, the Loggers have gone 127-3 against league opponents.
"They have a great program (and) we want to be right there with them," Nowlin said. "We feel like this year we should be right there at the top with them. We should battle for the league championship."
St. Paul changed conferences in 2019 to the Special District 1, going 8-10 to finish third in the league. Once again playing a full schedule, the Bucks have shot out of the gate, going 6-0 against league opponents while building a 9-0 record overall. Not bad for one of the only 1A teams competing in the 2A/1A classification.
"If you look, I think there are 52 2A/1A schools and there are only four teams that are undefeated and we're one of them that are (9-0)." Nowlin said.
The Bucks are heading into the second week of April on the heels of a three-game sweep over Portland Christian. Despite outscoring the Royals 42-7 in the series, St. Paul dropped from No. 2 in the OSAA standings to No. 14. Nowlin expects the rankings to smooth out over the course of the season and his team to return to the top 10 when they finish the year with series against Knappa and Neah-Kah-Nie, each of which have likewise yet to lose a league game.
In their strong start, the Bucks have ridden a combination of potent batting, powerful pitching and a rock-solid defense that has limited its mistakes.
"Our pitch count is so low," Nowlin said. "Our defense in (nine) games, we only have (11) errors."
That's compared to 20 errors in the team's first four games last year.
"(It) just shows the kids our focus, and they're learning my fundamentals of what we want to teach," Nowlin said.
Behind the arms of starting pitchers Warren Rose and Lance Tuck, St. Paul has been dominant on the mound. Rose has tallied 47 strikeouts in just over 24 innings, sporting an ERA of 2.30. Tuck has fanned 27 batters in 15.2 innings with an even better ERA of 0.91.
Clay Smith adds a third arm, mostly in relief, striking out 22 batters in 10 innings with a 3.5 ERA.
While Nowlin has ridden those three players for all but two innings this season, half the team is designated as pitchers on the roster with more waiting in the wings at the junior varsity level.
"It's all about pitch count," Nowlin said. "I've got a bunch of kids who can pitch."
As the Bucks eye the halfway point of the season, the team prepares to host Vernonia (2-2) on April 12 for the start of a three-game series, followed by Nestucca (4-5) the week after. The team will likely need sweeps of those programs if it hopes to challenge Knappa for the league title when the two programs face off in the final week of April.
"I feel like we're going to make some noise this year," Nowlin said. "I'm so proud of this program. I can't be happier."
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