The St. Paul baseball team's graduating class came into the program as freshmen during the 2016 campaign. That year, the Buckaroos finished their regular season in an unlikely three-way tie atop the Special District 2 standings along with the Kennedy Trojans and Regis Rams.
After going 17-3 throughout the vast majority of the season, the team lost its final three games of the season, the last of which came in a first-round defeat at home to the Waldport Irish.
It was the first state playoff game for the Buckaroos since the program returned to a varsity schedule several years earlier, and the senior class was celebrating a successful season.
But the incoming freshman — Zach Brentano, Rawley Koch, Jaidyn Jackson, Eric Diaz, and Justin Herberger — were hoping for more.
Three years later, those five players formed the core of a St. Paul team that will go down as the first in program history to win a state playoff game after the Buckaroos beat the Santiam Wolverines 2-0 in the first round of the 2A/1A state tournament on May 20.
It was the goal the team echoed to first-year head coach Dwayne Nowlin coming into spring training, approaching the 25-year coaching veteran with the singular purpose of winning an elusive state playoff game.
"(They said) 'Nobody has ever won a playoff game here, because we're always the 1A school playing the bigger schools,'" Nowlin recalled. "'We just want to win a playoff game, that's our goal.'"
With the combined baseball classification, much of the sport's landscape is dominated by 2A programs. The last 1A school to win a state championship was Umpqua Valley Christian in 2009. St. Paul was one of just four 1A teams that managed to advance to the Sweet 16 of the state playoffs and was the lone 1A presence in a league dominated by the two-time defending state champion Knappa Loggers.
As if that weren't enough, the team was beset by injuries. Power-hitter Alex Dela Cerda was unable to suit up all season, Rawley Koch missed the first 12 games, and Zach Brentano, Mitch Curtis and Justin Herberger all worked through ailments during the year that kept them from playing at full strength.
"When we were healthy, we could have played with anybody but Knappa," Nowlin said. "We were picked to come in fourth or fifth, (and) we were two games out of second place with all the injuries."
The team showed it come post season time, when the Bucks were as close to healthy as the team had been since opening day. St. Paul won back-to-back league playoff games against Portland Christian and Nestucca to earn the league's third state playoff berth, and followed with the 2-0 gem over Santiam five days later in the first round to make program history.
It was enough to make anyone a Buckaroo convert, and after two and a half decades of coaching, Nowlin has completely bought in to the St. Paul experience.
"All of these kids have grown up together, they've played together," he said. "That was a neat thing, and seeing all the pictures of these kids when they're in first grade playing tee ball together."
And it's not just the players. Everywhere the Buckaroos went, from Knappa to Bandon to Nestucca, the St. Paul blue and white was always there to greet the team.
"I look up in the crowd and there are all these people there, all these fans there," Nowlin said. "It doesn't matter if we're good or bad, the fans at St. Paul are amazing."
It will be tough for the Bucks to recover from losing seven seniors next year, including starters Herberger, Brentano, Koch and Jackson. But with a solid core of seven juniors, a dedicated base of players that featured 30 athletes coming out this year, and what Nowlin considers one of the best small school baseball complexes in the state, the new head coach can hardly wait for 2020 to come.
"It was a great experience to be at St. Paul for me," Nowlin said.
2019 Special District 1 Baseball All-Conference Awards
Justin Herberger, senior
T.J. Crawford, junior
Reed Overfield, junior
Jaidyn Jackson, senior
Rawley Koch, senior
Zach Brentano, senior
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