Sports Zone, Springfield

Embree, Drifters seeing improvement on field, in the stands at mid-season

SPRINGFIELD – Anytime a program has a coaching change, there’s bound to be an adjustment period. That period gets magnified when the coaching change happens a week into the season – the way it did for the Springfield Drifters this summer. 

Alan Embree took over the team after Tommy Richards, the coach for the first two seasons of Drifters baseball, left to take an assistant coaching job at his alma mater Washington State.

Luckily for the Drifters, Embree has an extensive career in baseball, one that includes a West Coast League title in 2015 at the helm of the Bend Elks. After going 2-7 in the first few games under Embree, the tides look to be turning as the Drifters won five straight games, including two over the seven-time defending West Coast League (WCL) champion Corvallis Knights.

“It’s been positive, the team’s come together really well as a group. I have expectations that they’re probably not used to from other places, and it’s about us getting on the same page as far as those expectations go,” Embree said of the team’s adjustment. “From getting a bunt down, to making contact, and not having big swings with two strikes. Small ball wins games in the West Coast League, and that’s what I’m trying to get them acclimated to.”

Despite Embree’s unexpected new gig, he said there wasn’t much of an adjustment period in terms of his mindset. Embree was an assistant for the Drifters last season, and has been a part of the WCL for more than a decade.

“I’ve done this in the West Coast League since 2011, so it’s easy to get into head coach mode. But, you know, I think my wife is a little irritated because she thought we were gonna hang out more,” Embree joked. “But it’s all good. If I hadn’t done it before, I think it might be an adjustment, but this is like riding a bike for me.”

Ask anyone who’s had success in the sports world though, and they’ll tell you that success isn’t linear. After winning the opening two games against the Knights, the Drifters then lost the next four, including a 5-1 defeat at Hamlin last Friday as the Knights scored 4 runs in the top of the 8th to pull away for the win.

“I thought it was what we did the first 10 games again. You have runners in scoring position, less than two outs, and we can’t find a way to get it in – its strikeout-strikeout,” Embree said. “We need a little bit more team-oriented at-bats, and less thinking about ourselves.”

PIERRE WEIL / CHRONICLE PHOTO
 Drifters outfielder Garrett Cooper gets a hit during last week’s game. Cooper finished the loss 2-for-4 at the plate.

Springfield’s wins in games one and two were the first time the Drifters beat the Knights since June 30 of 2022, and it was because of the little things that Embree mentioned.

“The first two games, it was mistake-free baseball. And it was heads-up baseball. It was showing a high baseball IQ,” he said. “The team that won the first three games was the team that capitalized on the other team’s mistakes. That’s what we were able to do (in the first two games), and hopefully down the road, we’ll be able to do it again.”

One of the reasons for the Drifters’ success so far this season has been the local talent. On its roster this season, Springfield has: Marist Catholic alums Kaden Starr and Cooper Mullens, Sheldon graduate Nolan Miller, former Junction City pitcher Billy Dotson, Aiden Gebhard from Lane Community College, Bushnell’s Ethan Paulson and Trevor Hammond, and Leo Reeves of South Eugene.

“It speaks highly for the baseball community. I think that the more local kids you have, the more energy you have throughout the community,” Embree said. “Getting local kids here, and having the community know that we’re here now is important. I think we’re doing a good job and making sure we have a good mix of that.”

The local talent seems to have gotten the community more excited about the Drifters: Springfield’s highest attendance of the season was Friday’s game, and the Drifters’ average attendance this season is up by almost 20% from last year.

After the series against Corvallis, Springfield is 8-13 as the first half of the season comes to a close this week. The Drifters are away for series against Walla Walla and Cowlitz before taking a week off from WCL games. They fill that time with non-league home games during the Fourth of July week.

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