Sports Zone

Challengers rally past Alaska, with coach on ice

EUGENE – After a coach ejection, five balks, and the distracting environment of sporadic firework blasts surrounding the stadium, the Eugene Challengers took down Eagle River, the three time defending Alaska State Champs, 9-8 in their opening game of the 2024 Papa’s Pizza Tournament in their home stadium for a festive Fourth of July.

“First of all, I would say that wasn’t an easy game to play in, officiate in, and coach in. There were a lot of distractions. Now with that being said, I would have been really frustrated had we lost,” Challengers head coach Kenny Niles said.

The Challengers took a 5-1 lead after two innings, but Eagle River scored 7 runs over the next three innings to take an 8-7 lead.  

Two of those runs came in the top of the 5th inning, when Eagle River scored on two balks by pitcher Kyle Miller. Niles passionately disagreed with the calls, letting the umpire know in the moment and again after the half-inning. While exchanging words on his way to 3rd base in the bottom of the 5th, Niles was thrown out of the game.

Niles explained how he felt the umpire was unfairly penalizing Miller’s personal pitch approach.

“The thing that frustrated me about our kid is that I guarantee (Kyle’s) never been called for a balk in his entire life, and he gets hit twice, and it’s part of his natural delivery. So I just said, ‘Hey, if you’re gonna call balk on our guy, you got to call a balk on their guy because theirs is actually to deceive the runner,’” Niles said.

However, Niles’ ejection sparked his team’s fervor and further fueled their desire to win. After Niles left the premises through the dugout, the Challengers scored two runs over the next two innings. In the bottom of the 6th inning – the final one due to time constraints – Grady Saunders scored from 3rd base on a balk by Eagle River’s pitcher, giving the Challengers a walk-off win via balk in one of the strangest baseball games of the year. Nile said he “got his money’s worth trying to get the guys fired up at that point.”

Once again, Thurston’s athletes stole the show. Saunders had 2 hits, 3 runs, and 1 RBI, Brock Johnson had 2 hits, 2 runs, and 1 RBI, and Collin Hernandez pitched 4 innings and had 3 strikeouts. Niles said that the big-game experience of the Thurston athletes helps boost morale, as he knows that “Thurston kids aren’t gonna panic because they’ve been there; they’ve done it. They got the trophies and the rings to prove it.”

Niles said he still needs to work on performance consistency with his players. 

“I’m proud of the kids for rallying, but we’ve got to find a way internally to get ourselves ready to go much before, you know, I get ejected from a baseball game,” Niles said.

Niles said that this win against a talented team like Eagle River will sustain the Challengers confidence to launch them into Regionals in Billings, Mont. – assuming the Challengers make it through the Oregon state tournament.

“Knowing the success that (Eagle River’s) had, I appreciate their coaches. They’re great guys, and they take chances, like coming down to the lower 48,” Niles said. “They’ll be there in Billings. I hope we’re there, but I guarantee that those guys will be there.

“If we get there, that’s going to be a team that we’re probably going to play on night one or night two. So, to get those bragging rights, and to get that confidence of, ‘Hey, we played these guys before, we know what they have, and we know we can beat them.’”

The Challengers won the 48th iteration of the Papa’s Pizza Tournament – beating the Portland Barbers 8-2 on Sunday in the title game. 

Saunders was named the tournament MVP.

The Challengers have two weeks until they host the state tournament, with the winner going to Montana for the Region 7 Championships.

Niles earned his 245th victory as Challengers manager with the tourney win. He likely will achieve his 250th win as soon as next week.

“Wins can rack up pretty quick when you have good players, and we play every night. But it means that we’re doing something right, and the kids are buying in, and they’re playing hard for each other, and that’s really important,” Niles said.



View this profile on Instagram


The Chronicle (@thechronicle1909) • Instagram photos and videos