Just getting to the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) championships won’t be good enough for the Linn-Benton Community College baseball team.
One year after going 0-2 and barbeque in their first finals appearance in nine years, the 2018 Roadrunners are in it to win it. Sophomore first baseman Joshua Congdon said anything less than a title at the conference tournament will leave the team unfilled.
“We want to get back to the final eight, and hopefully have a little more success,” Congdon said last Thursday, speaking outside the batting cage adjacent to LBCC’s newly-turfed field, the latest upgrade to a ballpark that has undergone major renovations since the program’s 2015 restoration to become one of the NWAC’s top facilities.
“We have an excellent chance of going deep. We have a lot of talent, and everyone is working hard. We have one mission: One game at a time, and see how far that takes us.
“Last year is definitely a motivator. It was good to have success, but going 0-2 was definitely not the plan. Our returning players have a little extra motivation. Last year left a little salty taste in our mouths.
“Everybody has a good focus; we don’t take pitches off. We work hard, take our reps seriously. And the turf has been beneficial, it’s allowed us to get a lot more reps.”
LBCC returns ample talent from a 2017 club that captured the NWAC’s South Region championship with a 19-5 mark, two games ahead of challenger Lane. The Roadrunners finished 30-12 overall after dropping back-to-back games at the eight-team NWAC championships at Lower Columbia in Longview, Washington.
A second baseman on Oregon State’s 2005 and 2006 Pac-12 champion and College World Series clubs, Gipson said expectations are high entering his fourth season at LBCC.
“They are set high every year, but this year they are a little bit higher,” he elaborated. “We’re returning a strong core of middle defenders. I like the middle of our defense.
The Roadrunners have added depth on the mound with a strong recruiting class anchored by freshmen Brock Townsend, Kevin Reilly and Jose Chavez.
“I expect to compete for the NWAC championship," Gibson said. "We won the South last year. It was confetti and fireworks and guys were happy with that.
“Now we have sophomores back who went through that experience of being two and eliminated at NWACs. They will provide that ‘been there, done that (want more)’ feeling, sort of similar to our 2006 Oregon State team,” which won the NCAA title over North Carolina a year after going 0-2 at the CWS.
“Last year there was an awe factor to (the NWAC tournament), we didn’t know what to expect. Now those sophomore know exactly what to expect."
Congdon (.346, 13 RBIs) earned all-NWAC honors and was second-team all-region. Sophomore third baseman Damon Peters (.311, 2 homers, 32 RBIs) also earned first-team all-NWAC honors, and sophomore second baseman Tate Cowden (.262, 3, 32) was a second-team selection.
The back end of the bullpen is in solid hands, anchored by sophomore right-handed closer Trevor Wells (0-0, 0.94 ERA, 11 saves), a first-team all-NWAC and all-region choice. Sophomore righty Brennen Lauffenburger (2-1, 0.86) also returns.
Add sophomore center fielder Cole Carder (.184, 4, 25), Western Oregon transfer catcher Cole Hamilton, freshman shortstop Richard Mascarenas, and freshmen Townsend, Reilly and Chavez into the mix and it’s easy to understand why Gipson is excited about the season.
A right-hander, Townsend teamed with the left-handed Chavez to help lead Churchill High to the Oregon 5A state title in 2017. Each earned all-state honors, as did Reilly at Clackamas High.
“Obviously we want to compete for a championship, just like everyone else in the NWAC,” Townsend said. “I think we prepared well this offseason and we are all hungry to go get it.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team and we all compete for spots. The sophomore went to (the conference tournament) last year, they know what it’s all about.
“They can help us freshmen, when we go, to be ready for what to expect. There’s a lot of talent here, there’s a lot of talent coming in, and coach Gipson knows his stuff.”
Gipson, his staff and the players provided much of the labor for the turf project, which was completed last fall.
“Our team has a sense of ownership," he said. “We just had middle-infield practice in the rain; last year we’d have been puddled (and forced inside). We now can have more practice and better practices.
“It helps with recruiting, it helps the quality baseball in the state. We will have better athletes come to our program. We’ll have a field area high schools can use if they need a place to play” in inclement weather.
“In the Northwest, it’s just a necessity to get games in.”
Top losses from last year’s champions are first-team South Region all-stars Caleb Smith (.294, 1, 29) and second-team stars Colton Cosner (.299, 1, 15) and pitcher Donte Glover (5-1, 3.21). Smith is now a student at Oregon State; Cosner transferred to Montana State-Billings; and Glover is at Faulkner University.
Gipson must also replace pitchers Travis Sanders (6-0, 2.78), now at San Jose State, and Logan Hatley (7-3, 3.61).
He sees Lane and Mt. Hood as LBCC’s top challengers in the South Region, which also includes Clackamas, Chemeketa, Clark and SWOCC.