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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Cody Rice, from Liberty High, has been a top batter this summer for the Portland Eastside Barbers, who won an American Legion Area 2 playoff game to earn the league's top seed into this week's AAA state tournament at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.Often referred to as the national pastime, baseball provides memories and lessons for young people that transcend sports.

And that is the mission of the Portland Eastside Barbers — an American Legion summer baseball team comprised of players from Madison, Reynolds, Central Catholic, Roosevelt and Liberty high schools.

The Barbers were founded in 2010 and are led by coach Joe Duran, who has been there since the start as a mentor and guide for the players (under age 20) who come through the program. Duran says he hasn’t missed an at-bat in seven seasons.

Duran calls this a “rebuilding year” for a club that has 13 of its 18 players eligible to return next season — with nine signed to play college baseball.

The Barbers are 20-12-1 this season going into the AAA state tournament at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer. Their 9 a.m. Wednesday first-round game is against the defending champion Medford Mustangs (28-17).

The Barbers made it this far by finishing as champions of Area 2 while the Mustangs advanced out of Regional A with two wins over the Mid-Valley Rockets of Albany.

Three other first-round games are set for Wednesday at the home of the Class A Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. At noon, the Bi-Mart Challenges from Eugene (23-14) will play the DeMarini Dirtbags of Dalls (32-6). The 4 p.m. game will have the Gerding Builders Marketmen of Corvallis (31-8-1) going against Advanced Metals of Gresham (22-5). At 7 p.m., the Withnell Dodgers of Salem (28-13) will play host to the Grants Pass Nuggets (23-17).

Four games are set for Thursday, with losers’ bracket contests at 9 a.m. and noon, and the Wednesday winners playing at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The tournament continues through Sunday.

“Our main goal when we started was to have an affordable place to play competitive baseball,” Duran says. “We want the kids to get the small-town feel of baseball outside of the city, too. It’s eye-opening for a lot of these guys to go down to Southern and Eastern Oregon and play in full stadiums in tight-knit communities.”

Immersing themselves in passionate sports communities gives many Barbers players a preview of their college experience. And a community feeling that exists within the Barbers organization lasts long after players move on.

“I get calls from former players asking when the games are,” Duran says. “Some of their best memories are with this team — and that really represents the Barbers community.”

Key contributors to the 2016 team include Cody Rice, a third baseman from Liberty who has committed to Walla Walla Community College. He is on track to break the Barbers’ single-season batting average record.

Pitcher Alex Batke, a Liberty graduate, is the Barbers’ top pitcher and already has played for Walla Walla. Batke has won his last four starts, and Duran calls him “as sharp as ever.”

Last season, Medford took third in the nation after the Barbers collapsed against the Mustangs in the seventh inning of a state tournament game, squandering a six-run lead.

Duran says the challenge of playing Medford remains immense, even though both teams being in transition.

“Medford will not beat themselves,” Duran says. “That’s what makes them the most dangerous team to me. They have two out of the last three state titles and were one out away from playing for the national championship last year.”

The Barbers’ task will be even tougher without right fielder Eamon McNeil. The Occidental-bound product of Central Catholic called Duran on Tuesday to let him know that work commitments wouldn’t allow him to make it to Wednesday’s game. Left-handed pitcher Sam Muskat, also from Central Catholic and signed to play for Montana State Billings, won’t be able to play Wednesday, either.

Duran says this has been a funky year filled with a lack of numbers that he attributes in part to injuries. Pitcher Ryan Kaser, a former Liberty High player who hurt a shoulder before the season, was the most notable injury. Fellow pitcher Jared Akin, from Liberty High and Lower Columbia College, recovered slower from Tommy John surgery than the team anticipated.

The lack of personnel, Duran says, also had a lot to do with high school coaches refusing to release their juniors to play for the Barbers program.

“Anywhere else in the state, if your kids are asked to play in American Legion, it’s an honor and a privilege,” Duran says. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the state except in Portland. That’s why a Portland team hasn’t won the AAA Legion title since 1988.”

The Barbers and Advanced Metals tied for first place in Area 2 with 9-3 records.

The Alpenrose Red Sox, a Wilson High-based team, took third at 6-5, with the Columbia Gorge Hustlers of The Dallas at 6-6, the West Linn Lions 5-5, the Taylor-Putnam Kingsmen (Putnam High) 3-8 and the Post 1 Pirates (David Douglas) 1-9.

The Barbers then took a one-game playoff with Advanced Metals, 5-2, at Liberty to earn the automatic berth to state.

What gives Duran hope in this postseason is his team’s play of late. The Barbers have won seven of their last eight games after playing .500 ball throughout the summer.

“We’re getting hot at the right time,” Duran says. “I can’t wait for Wednesday.”

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