Baseball: Woodburn gearing up for 4A season next year
Woodburn baseball Head Coach Danny Robles envisioned he would one day return to his home town and help rebuild the high school's baseball program. He just never thought he would be doing it in his mid-20s.
"I always told myself I was going to come back, but not this soon," Robles said. "I thought I was going to come here when I was maybe in my 40s and 50s, but I'm glad I'm here nice and early."
The Bulldogs have been suspended in a period of transition for much of the past decade. After finishing at the bottom of the Mid-Willamette Conference for six consecutive years, Woodburn's baseball team went to an independent schedule for a two-year period in 2013.
The program excelled against a more flexible schedule, posting six wins in 2013 and four more in 2014. The Bulldogs returned to the Mid-Willamette Conference in 2015, going 4-20, and the following year tabbed Craig Webster, one of the winningest coaches in Oregon high school history to lead the charge.
Under Webster, Woodburn fielded its best season in more than a decade, going 7-20, including four victories against conference opponents in 2016.
The 21 wins over a four-year period was a level of sustained success for a Woodburn program that had struggled to finish with even one game the previous decade. Webster stayed on for one more season, a winless campaign in 2017. During that season, high school administrators took the opportunity to move down to the 4A level for the 2018-19 reclassification in an effort to give many of the school's flagging athletic program an opportunity to play against more equitable competition.
The Bulldogs are coming off of their first season under Robles, who guided the team in a junior varsity-only schedule as the program prepares to transition to the 4A Classification for the 2019 season. Robles is excited at the opportunity to help bring consistency, enthusiasm and success to a Woodburn program that has struggled for some time.
"There's a lot of talent here in Woodburn, and I want to be a part of it," Robles said. "I really care about this community. They've been great to me, and I just want to give back everything I know and really change this around."
A former Woodburn High School student in 2009 and 2010, Robles transferred to the North Marion School District for his final two years. He played baseball for the Huskies, finishing his senior year as a First Team All-Conference selection in the Tri-Valley Conference.
With Woodburn in a transition year for the 2018 season and only a handful of seniors in the program, the Bulldogs opted not to field a varsity team. Woodburn was coming off a season in which the team was outscored 292-58, and Robles felt the team had a lot more to gain by playing games that were decided by single digits instead of 10-run games than only go five innings.
"I wanted them to be comfortable with me and I want to get comfortable with them," Robles said. "In the past, it's been blowouts, but this year it's kind of been a little different. We're in the game. They're learning, making plays, and it's not a blowout like how it used to be."
Robles sees a wealth of potential in Woodburn that he's excited to help unearth and build upon when the Bulldogs enter the Oregon West Conference next season. Webster stayed on this season as an assistant to Robles, providing decades of experience in the Oregon baseball scene for the young Woodburn coach to draw upon.
"He's been a mentor to me," Robles said. "He's put me in the greatest position there is. All I have to do is keep teaching these kids to put them in the right direction."
Robles has a passion for baseball that he sees in the core group of freshmen, sophomores and juniors that have been dedicated to the program during the spring season and have continued to play during summer league. With more than 1,000 students at the high school, Woodburn is not lacking for talent, but they are in need of experience, Robles said.
"You've got to keep on playing in baseball," Robles said. "These kids get the hang of the game, get the hang of the rules, they get comfortable and start hitting the ball better. But in the past, they haven't had summer ball and there's a cutoff. Summer happens, winter happens and then they start over again."
Robles wants to be working with kids year round, building the kind of work ethic and enthusiasm that student athletes have for other sports such as soccer and basketball. He wants to develop the program's core players to continue practicing during the fall and winter seasons, so that baseball is always in the back of their minds.
But he's not just thinking about the students. Robles also wants to tap into the inherent baseball culture that exists in the community. Woodburn boasts a thriving youth baseball culture that he wants to see translated to the high school level, envisioning the kind of spring and summer baseball experience that brings people from throughout the city to Woodburn High School for the leisurely spectacle of a baseball experience.
"There's a lot of baseball people in Woodburn and a lot of people don't know that," Robles said. "I want to bring some more people out here. Not just parents, not just grandparents, but maybe some people out there who just want to see a ball game and have a good time. Who doesn't just want to sit on a lawn chair, relax and watch a baseball game? I really want to make that happen here."
Robles knows that culture does not begin overnight. It begins with the players and the coaches. And even though he may be here two decades earlier than he ever anticipated, the team's transition to a new classification and coupled with the core of players and a supportive staff, Robles believes he's come at exactly the right time.
"We have everything we need, it's just about being committed, wanting to play and believing that this can really turn around," he said. "I feel lucky, because this is a very solid group, and I feel like I came at the right time."