Instead, the Challengers treated their fans to two closely-contested battles: a 4-2 win versus the Northwest Star Academy Barbers in the semifinals, followed by a 4-3 victory in a nail-biter of a championship game against cross-town rivals the Springfield Titans.
“Those guys came into their own,” Challengers head coach Todd Ziegler said of his players after the awards ceremony.
After the Springfield Titans finished demolishing the Three Rivers Sandblasters 8-1 in the first semifinal matchup of the afternoon, the Challengers and Star Barbers took the field. Most of the scoring in the contest occurred early on, with both teams earning a run apiece over the first two innings to tie the game 1-1. In the top of the third Codi Scanlon batted in a run for the Star Barbers, which the Challengers matched in the bottom of the third with runs scored off of doubles by Brett Nielsen and Bennett Chiongbian to put them in the lead 3-2.
Starting in the fourth inning, the defenses for both teams took over and, aside from one last run scored for the Challengers off of a hit by Erik Long in the bottom of the sixth, both batting lineups were held in check for the remainder of the game. The pitchers for both teams, Codi Scanlon for the Star Barbers and Joe Schindler for the Challengers, didn’t dominate the game completely (between the two of them, only a handful of batters were struck out), but both threw ably enough to give their respective teams a chance to win.
After the tournament, Schindler gave credit for the victory to his teammates’ efforts at bat. “I didn’t have my best stuff on the mound,” he said. “My team swung the bat. They [the batters] helped us win.”
The center fielders for both teams, Easton Bennett for the Star Barbers and Ryan Land for the Challengers, distinguished themselves by displaying great range and speed in chasing down and catching everything that entered their domain. Challengers third baseman Garret Harpole and Star Barbers infielder Scott Wiedlich also turned in particularly notable performances. Outside the locker room after the game, Scanlon attributed his team’s loss in the semifinals to making too many mistakes on routine plays.
“We started off really hot in the first three games [of the Invitational],” he said, “but then we dropped down in the last two games and gave up losses we shouldn’t have. We played about medium in this last one.”
“We started off really fast,” agreed Star Barbers coach Rik Harstrom, noting that against the Challengers his team “gave up a lot of free 90s,” referring to the distance between the bases on a regulation baseball diamond. But Coach Harstrom wasted little time in dwelling on the loss, preferring instead to look forward to the Star Barbers’ upcoming schedule.
“We have one day off for the next month,” he said, flashing a tired but satisfied smile at the thought of having so much more baseball left to play. “And we’re hosting the state tournament this year.”
To decide who would take home the Invitational championship, the Challengers squared off against the Springfield Titans, a team they had already played six times this season, with Eugene winning the first four contests before being swept in a double header by Springfield in their last meeting back in mid-June.
In many ways, this game was just as much an endurance trial as it was a contest of skill. The stress of having played one game already that day, coupled with temperatures peaking in the low 90s, was evident in the sweat dripping from every player’s brow as the game commenced. And as the outfielders struggled to get under and pull in catches they would have ordinarily corralled easily, and the batters put everything into swings that propelled balls over noticeably shorter distances than usual, it became apparent that fatigue was going to play a significant role in the game.
“It’s a grind,” said Challengers infielder Cooper Stiles afterwards. “We’re out there ‘cause we love it.”
Just to add to the difficulty of the contest, the Challengers nearly lost the game right out of the gate. In the bottom of the first inning, Eugene took the field with Jake Lessel as their starting pitcher. But unlike his superb performance against the Salt Lake Gulls red team on Thursday, on this outing Lessel seemed doomed to failure.
After striking out the first batter, number 44 threw 13 straight balls (not counting fouls), resulting in three straight walks. Eventually the Challengers infielders were able to pick off two runners to retire the side, but not before the Titans had scored three runs off of hits by first baseman Kyle Wattson, right fielder Jackson Bertsch, and left fielder Zach Shelby.
Harpole scored a run for the Challengers on an error in the top of the second to make the score 1-3, but then the batters on both sides began to falter. Opting for a slower, more controlled throwing motion, Lessel got his groove back in the bottom of the second, striking out five of the eleven at-bats he faced over the next three innings with only one walk. Cameron Jack, who took over the Challengers’ pitching duties for the fifth and sixth innings, threw well enough to prevent the Titans from scoring any more runs.
But although the Challengers’ pitchers were able to keep the game from getting out of hand, their batters were having no success in chipping away at Springfield’s lead. Lincoln Casarez started the game at pitcher for the Titans ably enough, but quickly wore down and was replaced in the third inning by Taylor Travess. Aided by strong performances from center fielder Joey Urness and second baseman Austin Payne, Travess was able to keep the Challengers on ice for most of the evening.
Meanwhile, the mounting tension of the game, coupled with the relentless sun overhead, soon began to fray nerves and heat tempers to the boiling point. In the bottom of the fifth, after a play in which it appeared that a Titans batter had stepped over the plate after striking out, thereby obstructing the catcher and allowing a teammate on base to steal second, Challengers assistant coach Kellen Hobie charged out on to the field.
“Oh my god!” he began as he laced in to the officials. “We have a great game going here, and you guys are screwing it up!” After some more heated words, Hobie was ejected from the stadium.
“Hobie is a passionate guy, but he doesn’t normally do that,” said team manager Derek Duman after the game. Duman went on to explain that frustrations were already high that day over the way the umpires had been handling the strike zone. “That was our first ejection all year.”
Whatever the reason, Hobie’s outburst may have provided a much-needed spark for the tired Challengers. “We were getting kind of down,” said Schindler, who then spent a few moments speculating about the effect the incident had on the team. “We needed something and that helped us get through it.”
Still, if that’s the case, then the fuse lit by that spark was of the slow-burning variety. After the ejection, the sixth inning was played without any appreciable change in circumstances for either side, so at the top of the seventh the Challengers found themselves still looking down the barrel of a two-run deficit as they headed into their final opportunity at bat. The Titans finally relieved Travess at pitcher after the Challengers’ first two batters got on base, Harpole after hitting a single and Mike Ralston on a walk.
Unfortunately for Springfield, the new pitcher, Jackson Bertsch, didn’t have much more luck than his predecessor. Two at-bats after the switch, Jacob DeZarn batted in Harpole with a grounder to left field, narrowing the Titans’ lead to a single point. After the game, Ziegler singled out that play as the one that turned things around for his team. “DeZarn’s hit was huge,” he said.
Not long thereafter, Erik Long also hit a grounder to left field, springing both Mike Ralston and Alex Torres (who subbed in for DeZarn as the runner on base) to score. The two runs gave Eugene its first lead of the game, 4-3, and not a moment too soon – a split second after Torres crossed home plate, Ben Giland was tagged out at second base, retiring the side.
Whatever hopes the Titans had for mounting a comeback of their own were soon quashed. After bringing in Toby Woods to pitch the final inning, the Challengers made short work of the opposing batters, retiring the side after four at-bats with one runner (Urness) left on base.
“We felt pretty confident,” said Lincoln Casarez of his team’s attitude headed into the final contest of the Invitational. “The last couple [of games against the Challengers] have been pretty close.”
Regarding the game itself, Titans pitcher Marshall Balderston offered this summary: “We came out hot and we were really ready to go. Then we got ahead and lost that energy.”
Casarez gave a similar assessment of his team’s performance. “It’s hard to play with a lead,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a shrug.
Afterwards, the Invitational concluded with an award ceremony. Along with giving out first and second place trophies to the Challengers and Titans, individual awards were also handed out. Three Challengers won awards: Jake Lessel for most outstanding left-handed pitcher, Joe Schindler for most outstanding hitter, and Brett Nielsen was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Other award winners include Titans players Shane Quarterly and Joey Urness, who were named most outstanding infielder and most outstanding outfielder, respectively; Dakota Farmer of the Northwest Star Academy Barbers won for most outstanding catcher, and the most outstanding right-handed pitcher award went to Zach Stone of the Humboldt County Sluggers.
Next up, the Challengers have one day off, then travel Klamath Falls on Tuesday for a league double header against the Falcons.