Sports Zone

Challengers look to generate more offense

EUGENE – The Eugene Challengers, a AAA American Legion Baseball team, are back in action for summer ball. The Challengers, with five Thurston Colts on the roster, faced off with Albany’s Mid-Valley Southpaws last Wednesday in a doubleheader, recording a walk-off 7-6 win after trailing the entire game.

“For our guys to battle late shows a lot of character, but I hope it doesn’t come back and bite us in the butt thinking that that’s how we can play. If it was on ESPN’s analytics, we probably had a 99.9% chance to lose that game,” Challengers head coach Kenny Niles said. “But we stayed resilient and battled. Hopefully, this can kind of catapult us into a little bit of chemistry and feeling like we’re never out of a baseball game.”

American Legion baseball is a variety of amateur baseball played around the country and Canada, and, according to its website, involves over 3,500 teams. The Challengers play at North Eugene High School with players ages 15-19 from Lane County high schools.

This season’s Challengers have multiple players from our area, including: Thurston’s Eli Crist, Brock Johnson, Easton McDonald, Grady Saunders, Kyle Miller, and Collin Hernandez, as well as Pleasant Hill’s Caden Richardson and Alejandro Ziolkowski.

Saunders had 2 hits, 1 run, and 2 RBI in the win, including the game-winning run against a Southpaw team that is made up of mostly West Albany players – the team Thurston has beaten in back-to-back OSAA state title games.

“(Mid-Valley) gets most of their kids from one place and spins them into a pretty good baseball team quickly. With our Thurston guys and a heated state championship game, we knew that they were going to come after us and be ready to go,” Niles said. “They did a really good job; I feel bad for them because they outplayed us to be honest.”

After trailing 6-0 heading into the bottom of the 6th inning, the Challengers scored 7 runs over the next two innings – including a walk-off two-run single from Brendan Van Ryzin that scored both Crist and Saunders. The Challengers scored 4 runs with two outs in the bottom of the 7th inning. 

PIERRE WEIL / THE CHRONICLE. Brayden Rather throws a pitch during the Challengers’ win last week. Eugene head coach Kenny Niles said developing the team’s pitching depth will be key this season.

Despite being outplayed in both games against the Southpaws, the Challengers went 1-1 in the doubleheader against the reigning Area 3 champs and are off to an 11-2 start this season after winning 50 games a year ago.

“We’re athletic, and we’re versatile. We got guys that can play multiple positions. … I think we’re maybe more athletic than the teams that we’ve had in the past,” Niles said.

The Challengers, the defending Area 4 champions, lost in the state title game last season to the Portland Barbers and ended the season with a record of 50-8. A 50-win season and reigning Area 4 championship means the Challengers are going to be one of the teams to beat this season. Luckily for Niles, he’s got a few Colts who know what that feels like.

“You’re gonna take everybody’s best shot. I mean, every single time you show up, you’re gonna be facing somebody’s number one or number two in the circle,” Niles said. “We know every time we go into a stadium it’s gonna be big crowds, good arms, and everybody’s best shot. And thank God we got guys like the Thurston kids because they kind of got used to that this year.”

The Challengers are hosting the state tournament at Swede Johnson Stadium from July 26-31. The winner of the state title game goes to the NW Regionals in Gillette, Wyo., with a chance to earn a bid to the American Legion World Series.

Niles said that the team is still implementing much of its system, with graduations and school limiting practice time. It’s what makes these next two weeks an important period.

“We got to play faster. I want to get us in motion and take extra 90 feets, and be able to just play a different pace of baseball. We want to bunt and we want to be able to run. We’re not a team that’s gonna hit 30 home runs this summer, so I want to put our whole base-running package in,” Niles said. “The other thing is (developing) that fifth-sixth-seventh-eighth arm. What we found out at regionals a couple years ago is that everybody has a good 1-2-3. But it comes down to that second-tier arm, and who can go get outs in an important game.”

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