For the last two years, The Dalles and Bend North have alternated district championships, with TD coming out on top two years ago, and Bend North winning last year en route to a state crown.
Now in the 12U classification, TD coach Jeff Hodges has seen an uptick in overall talent from all eight groups, not just TD and both Bend squads.
“All these other teams have all been working really hard and you can see it in these traveling leagues across the state,” Hodges said. “I expect Jefferson County to be a lot stronger than they were. We beat Crook County 29-0 as 10-year-olds, but we lost to them twice in travel ball, so they are stronger than they have been. I expect Redmond to be very tough as well. There are not a lot of easy games. You have to come ready to play every time, but I think we have the talent and ability to beat anybody on any given day.”
Hodges and Mark Coburn will have assistant coaching roles under manager Michael Cates, and with an experienced roster back on the diamond, there are district-title-winning expectations in place for the next week in Madras.
“We have a really good group of kids that have played with each other for a lot of years and they have had a lot of success and won a lot of baseball games,” Hodges said. “This is as strong of a group as what we had last year, and I think they should be really successful as long as they stay focused and hit the baseball.”
Veteran players Sterling Coburn, Trey Hodges, Nolan Cates and Avery Schwartz will be huge factors in how well TD fares, and Cody Agidius, William Booth, Finley Corbin, Carson Ramsay and Jonah Ofisa are competent district returners.
Joining those nine players are Matthew Ledoux, Jayden Turner, Izaiah Dingman and Noah Preston.
“I feel like we are a pretty good hitting team and we have good pitching, and our fielding is decent,” said Schwartz, a four-time all-star selection. “If we play our hardest, then we can win and do our best. We just need to jump ahead on teams and get in their heads and make them make mistakes.”
Last season in district play in The Dalles, when this group was in the 11U division, back-to-back first-inning doubles by Schwartz and Nolan Cates gave TD an early one-run advantage, but Bend North rallied for three runs in the third frame and added two more in the fifth to take a 5-1 win.
Bend North pitchers allowed four hits overall, and from the third through sixth innings, retired 10 straight TD batters, eight on strikeouts.
In their first loser’s bracket contest, Agidius had one of the best performances of his young baseball career, as he allowed three runs, two earned, on nine hits with four strikeouts, two walks and a hit by pitch in taking the losing decision in a season-ending 3-0 final.
Corbin called it an honor to be a part of this team and said the players want to show that The Dalles has some good homegrown talent coming up through the ranks.
“We have a good team this year. I think it is a lot better than last year,” Corbin said. “We are ready. I think we are going to do really good in this tournament. We have the potential to win a district championship and maybe get past that. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and all of us coming together.”
TD’s first game is slated for 4:30 p.m. Saturday versus Jefferson County. A win there sets up a matchup with either Crook County or Redmond at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, and if TD scores another victory, they play again at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
An opening-day loss moves them into the loser’s bracket for daily contests, the first one coming at 4:30 p.m. Sunday followed by 11:30 a.m. tilts on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Of The Dalles’ 13 11U All-Stars, seven were part of a 10U squad that lost to Bend South and John Day River by a combined 31-18 margin in two games last year at Kramer Field in The Dalles.
Fueled by last weekend’s 2-0 record in exhibition contests at Hermiston, TD manager Brandon Kuehnl is confident that his players will put on a more inspired showing this week in Madras.
“They lost both games they played, but they played good teams,” Kuehnl said. “I feel that this year, they are determined to change those results and the team has confidence in themselves that they feel they will go down to districts and win it all.”
Ahead of tournament play last week in Hermiston, TD has put in some extra time on defensive and offensive drills during their two-week preparation.
Tristan Schofield and Derek Goulart each tossed complete games, with Goulart dominating on the mound in his 3-0 complete-game shutout.
“After winning those two games in Hermiston, they have confidence, and they know, as a team, that they can’t get a big head, because our goal is to take it one game at a time, focus on those games, finish them out strong and see what we can do after that,” Kuehnl said.
On the team with Schofield and Goulart are 11U returners Alex De La Torre, Joshua Brackenbury, Jack Thiemann, Hudson Case, Austin Kuehnl, Sawyer Dray and Evan Ortega.
Making their all-star appearances for coach Kuehnl and his assistants, Randy Goulart and Wes Anderson, are Brody Hage, Hunter Bustos, Gavin Anderson, Carlos Madrigal, and Sawyer Dray.
Coach Kuehnl plans to set up his lineup to manufacture runs through big hits, utilizing all fields and smart base running.
“There’s going to be a lot of strategy when we go down there, as far as getting base runners on and advancing them to scoring position,” coach Kuehnl said. “We have a lot of hitters that do a lot of gap-to-gap hitting and opposite-field hitting, which is awesome. With those abilities, it will increase our chances of getting runs on the board.”
TD has its first game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday against Redmond, where a win sets up a Monday game at 2 p.m. versus either Bend North, South Central or Bend South.
A Monday triumph vaults TD to the semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, in front of Thursday’s championship games.
If The Dalles loses Saturday, then games will be set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in a double elimination bracket.
“I am very impressed with the team we have this year,” coach Kuehnl said. “They have the potential to do a lot of damage if you give them that opportunity.”
Even with just two returning 10U All-Stars, manager Jimmy Spowehn said that there has been a collaborative effort from all the players to be more proactive in their leadership roles.
That leadership aspect is making a big difference in the team’s preparation for the District 5 Championships in Madras.
“Before our first practice, I asked if someone wanted to lead, and every single one of them, everybody, raised their hands,” Spowehn said. “It shows me that we have players who are not afraid to lead and are ready to step up and say what they feel. It has helped everybody out, especially with such a young group of kids.”
Sawyer Case and Ely Rogers are geared up for their second year of all-star competition, and Emmett Gunderson, Camden Dooley, Harley Beaver, Chase Peterson, Ely Lavine, Landon Spowehn, Thatcher Dray, Joel Ortega, Bryson Cates, Ben Graham, and Caden Rippy will set foot on the biggest stage in their all-star debuts.
“Our strategy is to stick someone in there that can throw hittable balls and for our defense to make the plays. We are really good defensively,” Spowehn said. “As long as we can keep our defense rolling and we get our pitchers to keep their pitch counts low, it’ll give us a chance to get the bats going a little bit. So, defense is definitely our strong suit.”
On the staff with coach Spowehn are assistant coaches Craig Gunderson and Corey Case.
Earlier this month, the 10U squad took part in a pair of exhibition games in Hermiston and posted a 1-1 record.
In Madras, the Stars will face similar opponents from Crook County, Redmond and South Central, along with two Bend programs, North and South.
“We played a couple of pretty tough teams and I think it was good for them to be challenged the way they were,” Spowehn said. “Anytime you face good competition, you will get better.”
Up first, TD faces Bend North at 2 p.m. Saturday, where a win vaults them to a second-round matchup with either Crook County or Bend South at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
A win Sunday gives TD a day off and then a quarterfinal game at 9 a.m. Tuesday, where another victory sets up a contest at 9 a.m. Thursday, ahead of Friday’s 4:30 p.m. championship.
If The Dalles loses its first game, they have a 2 p.m. tilt Sunday, followed by games Monday (9 a.m.), Tuesday (11:30 a.m.), Wednesday (9 a.m.), Thursday (9 a.m.) and Friday (4:30 p.m.)
“If we set our minds to it, we can really smoke teams and do our best,” Lavine said. “We need to make good plays and keep each other pumped up and be excited to play.”