Sports Zone

Challengers’ Niles earns 200th victory

EUGENE – The Emerald Challengers took down the Puyallup Untouchables 8-6 on Friday night in the 47th annual Papa’s Pizza Tournament, securing coach Kenny Niles his 200th win at the helm of the program. Niles is in his fifth year with the Challengers, coaches the North Eugene baseball team, and is the Director of Player Personnel for the Springfield Drifters. The Challengers went on to win the tournament with a 6-2 victory over the Tigard Post 158 Barbers, moving to 32-2 on the season.


“I learned about the 200th win opportunity last night, so that’s pretty cool,” Niles said. “My first year with the Challengers was in 2019. We had a pretty good run and lost in the state championship, and then we have the Covid year so I’d say maybe it’s only been 4 1⁄2 years.”

The Challengers are an AAA American Legion Baseball team that plays at North Eugene High School and is made up of boys ages 15-19 from Lane County high schools. American Legion Baseball is a variety of amateur baseball played around the country and Canada, and, according to its website, boasts over 3,500 teams.

This year’s Challengers contain five athletes from Thurston: Eli Crist, Adam Elliott, Collin Hernandez, Easton McDonald, and Kyle Miller, as well as Pleasant Hill athletes Caden Richardson and Alejandro Ziolkowski. As a high school coach himself, Niles knows the importance of fostering local talent.

“It’s interesting because my stint here has been the Covid time. It was a weird time, kids were still able to play football and basketball, but the spring got whacked twice, so these kids have been a little bit behind baseball-wise,” Niles said. “Just getting these kids back up, because they all want to play college baseball. We want to bridge that gap a little bit, where we can hopefully get them caught up for the year and a half that they lost when they were incoming freshmen.”

Niles noted that many of the players have already signed places to play in college, making the depth of a team like the Challengers a lot different than a high school team. Anyone dedicated enough to play 32 games in the month of June is incredibly invested in baseball.

“These kids are a little bit more skilled and a little bit older. And I think the kids that are here want to play baseball, they’re not here for the social aspect of it,” Niles said. “We don’t have to do as much of the so-called babysitting, because we know that the guys are gonna show up to the yard to play and it’s performance-based. The camaraderie is great as well because a lot of these kids get to reunite from their 10-year-old all-star teams.” 

McDonald gets a hit in the win over the Untouchables last week.

The Papa’s Pizza tournament was the culmination of a busy month for the Challengers. In order to make up for the lost time that Niles mentioned, the Challengers played a hectic schedule that included a week-long trip to Alaska just before their own tournament.

“We were just in Alaska for eight days. We didn’t see the darkness, and we flew back in on the 28th and got to our own beds at two o’clock in the morning,” Niles said. “Some of the kids were back here at seven o’clock on the field ready. But the competition at this tournament is always the best in the Northwest.”

One of the key reasons for hosting this year’s Papa’s Pizza tournament is that it mimics the state tournament that the Challengers will also be hosting this year from July 21-26.

“Since we’re hosting, the state tournament will be a four-day tournament for us. This mimics that perfectly which is great. Sometimes you can throw your two best pitchers and then maybe they get a rest and you can throw them again next week,” Niles said. “But the tournaments really tax your pitching staff and you have to adapt. You got to use three catchers to get through this thing. You got to use six or seven pitchers, so it has a real state tournament type of feel.”

Whoever wins the state tournament at the end of this month gets the bid to go to Gillette, Wyo. at the beginning of August to compete in the regional tournament. Being 32-2 and hosting the state tournament gives the Challengers a great shot at that title.

“We got to go to Wyoming a couple of years ago, and it was a really good experience,” Niles said. “We feel like this is one of the premier facilities in the Northwest. We call this home and so we’re really fortunate to be playing in front of our people. I think it’s going to be beneficial for us.”



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