As the heat of summer continues to mount in the month of July, the boys of North Marion's Legion A baseball team are getting hot in their own right.
The Huskies — known during the Legion season as North Willamette Valley — have been on a tear over the past three weeks coming off of a successful trip to the Oregon State University baseball complex in Corvallis over Independence Day weekend.
The team enters this week coming off an 8-7 loss to Aloha on Thursday, a rare defeat that capped an otherwise successful week for North Willamette Valley. The Huskies opened last week with back-to-back wins over the Madison Cutters on July 10 by scores of 11-4 and 5-1. They followed with a 4-1 victory against Hood River Valley on July 12 the day before their loss to Aloha.
Though the uniforms that the Huskies wear read North Willamette Valley, make no mistake — these players represent North Marion High School.
"All the guys we have on our team are guys who are going to be playing at North Marion next year," head coach Randy Brack said.
That puts the Huskies in a unique position each year when the team switches from the high school baseball season in the spring to the Legion baseball season in the summer.
North Marion's strong baseball tradition allows the team to field a full squad of players during the summer season. That's an outlier in the world of Legion ball, where most teams are comprised of the top players from several high schools.
An additional factor is that Legion baseball is 19 and under, allowing teams to recruit recently graduated seniors or college freshmen looking to hone their game in the offseason. As a result, the Huskies are often playing at a competitive disadvantage, sending their young players out against regional all-star teams and young men that can be three or four years older.
And Brack wouldn't have it any other way.
"I really like that," he said. "It's good competition for us."
For the North Marion coach, playing against such a high level of competition is akin to taking practice swings with a weighted bat. The lessons and experience accumulated during the Legion season will carry over to next year's team and pay dividends when the Huskies don their high school uniforms and vie for a state title run.
And while the Huskies may be younger and less physically dominant than the teams they play against during the Legion season, they have the intangible advantage that comes with being part of a team. They aren't just thrown together randomly from different schools. These are kids who have played together in the past, go to school together, hang out together, practice together and live together.
They have a level of solidarity that no other team they play against can boast, and that mental edge is often enough to lift them above whatever regional all-star team they happen to be playing against on any given night.
"We try to get the mentality that we're as good, if not better than everyone we play," Brack said. "That's the culture we're trying to get these kids back into — they can compete against anybody we walk out there against."
Such was the case at Oregon State University at the beginning of the month, where the Huskies weren't just playing against local all-star teams, but clubs from Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Washington and California.
"We're the only school team there," Brack said. "We roll in as North Marion as the only high school team."
And the Huskies showed that they were a team to be reckoned with. After a tough opening day at the tournament in which the team fell in two straight games by margins of 7-5 and 6-4, they rallied hard.
The following night, North Willamette Valley went into extra innings against an Idaho team, culminating in a game-winning RBI double in the top of the 10th inning from Grant Henry that drove in Nic Iliyn to win the game.
From that point on, the tournament belonged to the Huskies. The team scored a 5-0 shutout victory over the Showtime club out of Washington, then turned around and rallied against the NW Futures team from the Portland Metro area, scoring two runs in the bottom of the seventh to steal a 4-3 victory and finish the tournament with a winning record.
The strong finish at OSU sparked a streak of five more wins before the Huskies fell at Aloha on Thursday for the team's first loss in the month of July.
It's the kind of results that the coaches at North Marion have come to expect, and those expectations are being drilled into the players. They're not just good enough to play against the best; they're good enough to beat the best.
And when the Huskies host the Legion A state tournament at Bob Brack Stadium on July 26, they fully intend to be the tournament champions at the end of the competition and head down to Eugene for the regional tournament in August.
"Our expectations are really, really high," Brack said. "We don't want to just compete; we expect to win these games."