The surprise of the summer perhaps shouldn't be a shock at all.
Southridge, a squad that reached the first round of the Class 6A playoffs a year ago, looks poised to be back where it belongs, amongst the Metro League elite under second-year skipper Kyle Chamberlain.
The Skyhawks (Dr. Barney's) finished off their Oregon Independent Baseball Association summer slate with a 5-1 win over Jesuit on Monday at Jesuit High, clinching first place in the Olin standings with an 11-3 record overall as well as Olin's top seed in the OIBA state tournament. Southridge played Sunset on Wednesday while Jesuit, Olin's second seed, squared off against Gladstone in the first round of the state tourney. Results of the game weren't available as of press time.
In terms of returning talent and the competitive culture Chamberlain already has implemented, Southridge appears well on its way to true contender status in Metro. With nine regulars coming back from last season such as third baseman Cam Carlson and centerfielder Hayden Jenkins and a pack of encouraging risers from the junior varsity level like Darik Salians, the Skyhawks made big strides this summer. They're a team that's surpassed expectations and risen to the top of the OIBA.
"I think guys are starting to understand what I expect in terms of competitiveness and not taking a play off," Chamberlain said. "Every pitch matters. It doesn't matter what the score is, what the count is or the situation in the game is. We're still trying to build that, but everything we do has a purpose."
Against Jesuit — a team that plays a similarly super assertive style and believes in similar baseball principles as Southridge — the Skyhawks were stellar defensively and on the mound. Twice Jesuit put a man on second base with one out, only to be undone by a pair of superb inning-ending doubles plays — one from Mason McLaren in left field to Salians and the other from Carlson at the hot corner to Salinas in the fourth. Both McLaren and Carlson coolly caught bottle rockets off the Crusader bats and calmly went to second to nab the leading runner. Carlson, who garnered All-Metro honors as a sophomore, didn't have rising senior shortstop Connor Fajardo next to him, yet the Skyhawks didn't miss a beat or make an error all day.
"I think we can easily have one of the best infields in our league," Salians said. "Our communication on defense has been huge. And, that goes along with chemistry, too. We work a lot on talking and communication."
Jenkins and Trevor Barth each made impressive grabs in the outfield as well, leading one to believe Southridge's defense could be a strength moving forward into next year. McLaren and Barth are converted infielders learning the outfield craft.
"Before the pitch, everybody knows what's going on before the ball is thrown," Carlson said. "If you do that, you're gonna feel a lot better and make all of your plays like we did today."
Southridge junior Spencer Stevens pulled a single to left that scored Joe Ball with two outs to give Southridge a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth. And in the fifth, Jenkins, with two outs, pulled a shot to third that was thrown wide of first base and allowed Barth to score and regain a 2-1 lead. In the seventh, Southridge walked three times with the bases loaded to scratch across a trio of insurance runs.
Jesuit will most definitely be heard from this weekend in the single elimination state tournament. Versus Southridge, Jesuit junior shortstop Will Spitznagel turned an unassisted double play. And later on the junior scored standing up from first base on a RBI double from sophomore slugger James Porter that evened the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth. Spitznagel and senior infielder Ennis Ferguson are an interchangeable duo up the middle. Outfielder David Arndorfer possesses a sweet left-handed swing that notched two base hits against Southridge. Porter is a power threat at the dish and an excellent right-handed pitcher. Sophomore ace Mick Abel is already committed to Oregon State University after garnering first-team all-Metro honors last spring. Should Abel pitch once or even twice if Jesuit advances far enough this week, Jesuit will be right in the chase for an OIBA title.
Expect Southridge to be in contention right alongside Jesuit and Westview (Robinson Construction).
"Everything in the playoffs gets magnified," Chamberlain said. "Every pitch matters, but especially in the postseason when you're playing 2-1, 3-2, 4-3 baseball games basically every single game. Mistakes are highlighted more often. We just have to make sure every play matters."
Southridge senior Rydell Nelson pitched four innings of one-run ball, the lone RBI coming off the bat of Porter. Nelson, who threw on the junior varsity team during the spring, has lead Southridge in innings pitched over the summer. Salians pitched two solid innings in relief and Barth closed the game out in the seventh.
A proud program that became accustomed to long playoff runs, the Skyhawks inexplicably didn't make the postseason in 2016, prompting a coaching change at the top. Chamberlain, who played for Sunset High School and won a National Championship as a senior at Linfield College, was hired and ushered in a new brand of baseball that was both fun for the players and fruitful for success last spring. Southridge won its play-in game against North Medford before losing 6-0 in the first round to eventual state champion North Medford. Chamberlain said he was astonished at how much talent was still in the Skyhawk pipeline and on the current roster when he took the job a year ago. Expecting to take on a full rebuild job, the rookie manager instead stepped into a far more reasonable situation — one where the veterans knew how to play the game and the younger players were skilled and coachable enough to absorb Chamberlain's ultra aggressive, push-the-envelope philosophy both at the plate and in the field.
"If a guy hits a single up the middle, we're running to second (base) until the outfielder shows he has the ball and throws it in," Chamberlain said. "If you're on second with any outs on the board, you're scoring until I tell you you're not. We're always taking the extra base until the defense makes us stop. Things like that we're getting ingrained in our guys. We've gotten a lot better at that this summer. We have a lot of team speed, so we can take advantage of that. That aggressive mentality is something we'll always have."
A former catcher who's handled a number of different pitching staff over his lifetime, Chamberlain has taken on more of a role in leading Southridge's staff this summer in hopes of getting players like Salinas and Nelson up to varsity speed. And rather than stress over the smaller, trivial details, Chamberlain said he's put more games in the players' hands.
"They've all been playing baseball for so long that I don't need to control every single aspect that's going on out there," Chamberlain said. "I want them to trust their athleticism, to trust their instincts and just play the game. That's what I probably took away most from my first year — trusting my players to do the right thing."
The age-old question of OIBA is how can a team translate all this bountiful success, the wins, the marked improvement into next spring? The sizable gap from the summer slate to the regular season in 2018 is by far the longest of any of the three major sports. When the tournament comes to an end on Saturday, Southridge won't see any live action as a full team until early March. For Chamberlain, this will be his first time navigating the long off-season. But, by establishing the ambitious habits and creating competition every day, Chamberlain expects Southridge to return eager next spring.
"A lot of it is not letting up as soon as we get to the winter and get to tryouts," Chamberlain said. "We have to realize summer ball doesn't really have an effect on anything. I don't care if you hit .350 in the summer, you're hitting .000 in the spring. We have to make sure that's established and make sure everything is competitive in practice."