Building an American Legion baseball team can be an inexact science.
Asking a group of players who have scarcely played together — and in many cases, grew up playing against each other — can take time. With a grueling schedule that begins in early June and wraps up in August, chemistry is key for a team that will spend most of the summer together.
As the Corvallis Gerding Builders Marketmen begin their second week of games and ramp up for Area III play, they have aspirations of a trip to the American Legion World Series and believe that finding that crucial chemistry will be the least of their worries.
With a loaded roster that is drawing from a different set of area schools than in past seasons, the Marketmen will be among the Area III favorites this summer. They began a stretch of 12 games in 10 days last Sunday.
“I think on the surface, every team wants to win ball games and win a league championship — you want to win a state tournament,” said third-year coach Evan Hilberg.
"You want to keep progressing on the scoreboard and in the standings. I think for us, a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about already this season is stuff below the surface. I think we have a really talented group of players and a really great group of kids on our team. As coaches, our goal is to leverage that and help them learn the game, to grow as baseball players but also as young adults.”
The Marketmen will field a team of players from Corvallis, Crescent Valley, Lebanon, Philomath, Santiam Christian, South Albany and West Albany high schools. In the past, some players from those schools would have fed the Mid-Valley Southpaws.
But the Southpaws will not field a team this season after last summer’s controversy at the state title game. That left a number players who normally would have taken the field for Mid-Valley looking for a new place to play this summer. Many of them have found a home with the Marketmen.
“I’m just looking forward to playing, really,” said Marketmen shortstop and recent West Albany graduate Caleb Beach. “It’s a great group of guys I’m coming over to, so I’m really excited. … We’ve got a lot of talent, so if we can put that together with some hard work, I think good things are going to happen.”
If there was ever a summer for the local schools to merge into one team, this could be a particularly good one for Corvallis. West Albany reached the 5A state semifinals this spring, while Crescent Valley earned the No. 2 seed and made the quarterfinals. Philomath reached the quarterfinals of the 4A tournament, while Santiam Christian navigated a tough league schedule and reached the 3A semifinals.
Those teams boasted some of the top players in the state of Oregon, and it could be to the Marketmen's benefit that they will all converge on one roster.
“The addition of the Albany and Lebanon kids helps us for sure,” Hilberg said. “I think the Corvallis and Philomath schools have really quality players this year. So we have depth offensively that we haven’t had in awhile, at least on paper. We have guys that want to compete on the mound and throw strikes. … In terms of just sheer numbers and talent, I think it’s been a pleasant surprise to see the turnout. We’re fortunate to have the kind of guys we have — high school programs do a great job in the area with these players and we reap the benefits of that.”
Leading a stacked pitching rotation will be Crescent Valley's Taylor Holder, who finished his the spring with 111 strikeouts for the Raiders — good for the third-most by any pitcher in 5A. Holder tossed five innings and struck out three in Corvallis’ 13-11 home win over Eugene on Monday and will also do some heavy lifting in the middle of the batting order this summer.
“I think we have the deepest lineup in the state,” said Holder, who played for the Southpaws last summer. “There might be a couple teams that are like us. But with the Southpaws, we won state last year and this is a much better team this year, just up and down the lineup.”
The state title was later awarded to Medford after the Mustangs protested the use of an ineligible player.
Holder, Ethan Krupp, Noah Greenblatt, Bora Haller and Zach Ragan could pick up plenty of innings for the Marketmen, as well as a host of other pitchers, according to Hilberg.
“I’ve never run across a summer baseball team that said they had too many pitchers,” Hilberg said.
In the Corvallis lineup, Grant Carley, Beach, Brooks Stearns and Krupp could be among those hitting at the top of the order.
“The camaraderie has been really good,” Beach said. “I love all the guys on this team. We’ve been doing a good job playing together these last few games, so I’m really looking forward to what we can do moving forward.”