There is no pressure on the Klamath Falls Falcons entering the Oregon American Legion state tournament beginning Saturday at Kiger Stadium.
The Falcons will be the only team out of the best eight in the state that didn’t earn the right to be there. As is the case every year, the host team has an automatic berth.
It’s been a tough season for the young squad, managing only six wins out of 37 games, and finishing 3-17 in the Area IV league race.
Numerous players, for various reasons, who were expected to be out for the team this summer opted not to play. All of them were older players that had been with the program the year, or years, before.
That left coaches Pete Whisler, Joe Tacchini and Craig Conner scrambling to fill the holes in the 18-player roster.
As the summer progressed, so has the team’s talent and chemistry.
While the Falcons are short in wins in comparison to years past, in recent weeks they’ve been competitive in nearly every game.
Two wins against second-place Willamette Valley and two late-inning leads in their regular season finale that disappeared against Roseburg are good examples.
“Opposing coaches have told us they noticed a drastic improvement from the first time we played them from the second time around,” Whisler says. “There are many games that, if we make a routine play here or there, we end up winning.”
Conner added: “We’ve told the kids if they just listen to what we tell them, they’ll be successful. They’re starting to see that now.”
The team is young.
Two 15-year-olds, Mazama’s Kaden Bolanos and Drew Raebel, have cracked the starting lineup and are everyday players.
The pitching has improved, too, with Bailey Whitlock throwing a two-hit shutout at Grants Pass last week and Scott Lewis, from Modoc High, throwing a complete game win at Willamette Valley of Springfield, 4-1.
Dylan Fitts and Caden Whitlock have also been solid as of late, challenging the strike zone much more often.
Defensively, the Falcons struggled with several games with more than five errors to start the season. To show just how much that’s improved, the team turned six double plays in the two games against Roseburg last week, four alone in the first game.
The veterans on the team — Blake Loney, John Tacchini, Jagger Graham and Bailey Whitlock — help the younger players see that this level of baseball is markedly different from high school ball.
“The biggest adjustment for the younger guys is how much better the pitching is in summer ball as compared to Class 4A,” Whisler says. “We are making progress.”
The Falcons will open the tournament with Medford, the five-time defending state champions, or Corvallis. In their last doubleheader against Medford, the Falcons took the early lead in both games, only to fall in closely contested affairs.
“We can play with anybody,” Whisler says, “but we need to make routine plays and our pitchers need to pound the strike zone.”
Two years ago, a Klamath Falls team with similar structure came in and won the opening game of the tournament, 7-6, against Grants Pass, a team that in 2017 was one of the best in the state.
Playing at home, and in front of hopefully their biggest crowd of the year Saturday night, should help them try and duplicate that effort.
■ All American Legion post-season contests are now seven-inning games. This was one of many rules instituted by the national committee in the offseason.
■ Thus far, two of the 2017 teams that visited Kiger for the tournament have earned spots joining the Falcons — Dallas and Eugene.
■ Willamette Valley, Medford and Hillsboro were also here, but had to earn their way through the super regionals this week Newcomers could be Lakeridge, Roseburg, Mid-Coast (Newport) and Corvallis.
■ A great amount of volunteer work has been done to Kiger Stadium in recent weeks. Grandstand repair and paint, and landscaping of the two bullpens is complete. Much credit goes to Dave Snider and several other volunteers to help get the historic, all-wooden structure ready for 14 or 15 games of baseball.
■ Area 3 is down to five teams this year due to the fact the Mid-Valley Southpaws did not field a team this summer. Last year, Mid-Valley used an ineligible player to defeat Medford in the championship game in Roseburg, but the national committee ruled the title be given to Medford.
■ This year and next, the Northwest Regional will be held in Lewiston, Idaho.