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The Washington County minor league franchise expects competitive team while providing a better fan experience

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops players celebrate a grand slam during a game last season.Take me out to the ball game.

That's right it's that time of year again; summer sun, fun, and yes, Hillsboro Hops baseball.

Hillsboro's minor league Hops kicked-off the 2017 season June 15 at Everett with a 10-3 win, and followed that up with more wins to jump-out to a start. But prior to the season the President and General Manager, manager, and players spent an afternoon talking about their excitement for the upcoming campaign, special events, and playing for the Hops organization and in a city like Hillsboro.

"It's a big year for us," said Hops President and General Manager K.L. Wombacher. "With the season almost here, and the all-star game and the three days of first class events that come with it a little over a month away, the staff has been working tirelessly in preparation and it's almost go-time."

This year's team will be without its manager of the past two years, Shelly Duncan, who took the team to the postseason in both of his seasons in Hillsboro and skippered the second of back-to-back championships. The 2017 Hops will be led by first-year manager Shawn Roof, who'll be making his managerial debut and spent last season as a coach with Class-A Kane County in the Midwest League, following two seasons as a coach in the Baltimore Orioles system and one year as an assistant coach at Indiana University. Originally drafted out of the University of Illinois by the Detroit Tigers in 2007, Roof spent six seasons as a player in the minor leagues, five with the Tigers and one in the Minnesota Twins organization, reaching as high as Triple-A Toledo in 2010.

"Ever since I finished playing it was a goal of mine to manage, and what better place to start managing than for the Hops?" Roof said. "There's a great tradition of winning in Hillsboro and I look forward to continuing that tradition."

Roof expects his experienced roster, both in the field and on the mound, to be very competitive and help ease the transition for younger players who will be filtering-in as the season progresses. But more than anything, is excited for the season to simply get going.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - First year manager Shawn Roof awaits the start of batting practice during media day June 15 at Ron Tonkin Field."Once spring training ended and everyone broke for the full season, it felt like this day would never get here," he said. "But we're finally here and we're excited for the season."

Wombacher agreed that the experience of this year's team was exciting, and cited the difference opposed to year's past.

"Having an experienced team is pretty cool. Normally you have a lot of young guys, but right now we have some rehab guys which we've never really had here," Wombacher said. "Carlos Hernandez who was the NWL Pitcher of the Year is here for a week or two, Domingo Leyba who is the number two prospect in the Diamondback organization is here for a few games, and that's pretty cool. It means we've built enough of a report and relationship with the D-Backs that they trust us with those guys."

Along with the organization, the players seem genuinely excited to be in Hillsboro and aren't shy about expressing their affection for what a number believe is one of the best stops in the minor leagues.

"This place is amazing and a great place to play baseball," said pitcher Riley Smith. "Coming from college, some people say the minor leagues are sometimes a step down. But this place is great and the fans are unbelievable. It's a great experience."

Smith pitched in Hillsboro last season and was at the Diamonbacks' Class-A affiliate, Kane County earlier this year as a reliever, but has returned to the Hops to work as a starter. Some players might be disenchanted to return to a previous stop, but Smith isn't, and is actually excited to be back in Oregon.

"This is such a nice place to play, it's hard to be disappointed in coming back here," Smith said. "I'm also really into the outdoors, so it's nice to get out and do some stuff when we get off-days."

Wombacher said such sentiment means a lot to the organization, and is something they strive for.

"No doubt we take pride in the fact players like to be here," said Wombacher. "When we were in Yakima we didn't have a great stadium, not great attendance, and it was challenging knowing guys were disappointed when they were being sent there. Our goal is that this be a player's best experience in the minor leagues."

And that experience will be even better this year.

Fans at Ron Tonkin field this season will be treated to a few new amenities, including a 110-foot long ribbon board in right field that will allow for three times the display capacity to provide engaging content and player and game information. Additionally, a new concession stand – Barley's Smokehouse – will offer barbecue eats for the patrons, including southern sandwiches, combo plates and desserts. Which is all part of the organizations goal of improving the viewing experience year-to-year.

"Every year we want to improve the facility and give it a little pop," Wombacher said. "We always want to give the fans another reason to come out."

And how about the team?

Roof expects them to be very competitive. But while pretty familiar with the personnel as a whole, is excited to see them in action.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Barley's Smokehouse is a new addition to the concession options at Ron Tonkin Field this year."We have a pretty good feel for most of these guys," said the manager. "But now we're in a stadium and the lights will go on, and it will be great to see how a lot of these guys react."

Veteran catcher Luke Lowery is also excited about the team, and expects that starting pitching, a great lineup, and leadership will be amongst the strengths of this year's squad. But like the others, reiterated the belief in the experience in this year's clubhouse.

"Everyone in the locker room right now, I've been playing with since I was drafted," Lowery said. "We've got great chemistry here, and that's invaluable."

The Hops opened their home season May 20 versus Salem-Keizer and finish a three-game set with the Volcanoes Thursday night, before hosting Boise in a three-game series Friday, May 23 through Sunday, May 25. Tickets are available online at hillsborohops.com or at Ron Tonkin Field.

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