Baseball: The Huskies capture American Legion state title on their home field
In 1996, with current assistant coach Tucker Brack suiting up for the Huskies, the North Willamette Valley American Legion baseball team came bitterly close to playing in the state title game on their home field.
The Huskies lost a one-run ballgame to a Beaverton-area squad in the semifinals that year and had to watch the state title game from the stands.
But 21 years later, the North Marion High affiliated team hosted the eight-team tournament again and did what their predecessor couldn't.
This year, they not only reached the state championship game but also captured the tournament title Sunday at North Marion High School.
The Huskies also went undefeated throughout the tournament, scored at least nine runs in every game and earned a spot in the regional tournament against American Legion teams from states such as Montana, Utah, Alaska and Wyoming.
The Huskies delivered one impressive performance after another throughout the weekend. In the first two games, they defeated the Umpqua Lions 10-6 and team Pepsi 12-10 in a game featuring 30 total hits and a few home runs. These wins set up their seemingly toughest challenge yet.
Heading into the tournament, North Willamette Valley coach Randy Brack figured La Grande, the 2016 4A state champions, would be the odds on favorite to take first place. And when North Marion met the ostensible favorites in the tournament quarterfinals, both teams were undefeated.
But, contrary to expectations, the Huskies pummeled La Grande 11-0. Griffin Henry pitched a shutout in the game while Hunter Schrenk's towering line drive struck the foul pole for a three-run home run.
After the win, the Huskies had booked a spot in the tournament championship.
And with a heart-stopping victory over North Medford in the semifinals, they guaranteed themselves two chances at victory in the state title round, since the tournament featured a double elimination format.
Randy Brack said his team didn't come out with as much enthusiasm in the semifinals game but that a few controversial umpire calls lit a fire in the team and forged the path toward victory. North Willamette Valley scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to erase North Medford's 8-5 lead and then Grant Henry smacked a line drive up the left field line in the bottom of the eighth inning to clinch a 12-10 victory.
"It was bedlam. It went from an unassuming game to a crazy game in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings," Brack said.
North Willamette Valley didn't need two chances in the final round to win the championship. Instead, it braved a first inning home run by team Pepsi, scored five runs in the top of the second inning including a home run by Isaac Hansen, tacked on a couple more runs in the third inning to take a lofty 7-1 lead and wound up winning 12-1.
"Grant Henry pitched outstanding and we swung the bat extremely well and ran the bases extremely well," Brack said.
The players as well as the North Marion community basked in the victory following the game.
"There was a lot of excitement today. Kids celebrated. We didn't leave the ballpark for a long time. People stayed around and enjoyed it," Brack said.
North Willamette Valley won the tournament in large part because it hit the ball extremely well. In fact, it accumulated a team batting average of .397. Pitchers Griffin and Grant Henry also pitched well, particularly in the La Grande and state title games.
"The kids did a great job adjusting to the count and the pitches being thrown. A lot of two-strike hits. A lot of situational hits. Guys had to make good swings and we were squaring the ball up," Brack said.
And in general, Brack said returning players from last year's team have grown in confidence since the spring season in which North Marion High reached the first round of the playoffs.
"One thing I've noticed is our players have become more confident and it shows up in a lot of different ways," Brack said. "They're not afraid to take chances on bases or going after a fly ball. When you don't have it (confidence) you are more hesitant. We also believe we should start winning every game. That's evident in the way they look, the things they say and the way they work together."
Brack was also happy with the turnout at the tournament and the proceeds it garnered. Even teams from Southern and Central Oregon had avid supporters.
"I think what I'm hearing from the gate, it is considerably more than what I had imagined," Brack said.
Brack isn't sure what to expect from opponents in the regional tournament but expects his team to continue to play with confidence and precision.
"As far as our approach we just have to play the way we've been playing," Brack said. "If we run into a buzz saw, we run into a buzz saw."