A SEASON OF SURPRISES
By C.J. Gish
Observer Staff Writer
Wyoming was the last place on earth Rain Roofing thought it would be this week.
The La Grande American Legion baseball team got off to a 4-6 start through the first two weeks of its season in June.
Two months later, the same group of 16- to 18-year-olds is heading to Powell, Wyo., for the Northwest Class A Regional Tournament.
Rain Roofing faces Richland, Wash., the top seed out of Washington, in its opener at 11:30 a.m. Friday.
Winners of 11 straight, which includes state and district titles, La Grande (26-9) has used tragedy and a surge of confidence to jell into a well-balanced squad.
On Monday, La Grande completed a five-game sweep at the state tournament with a 10-5 win over Ashland. It was Rain Roofings 22nd win in its last 25 games since June 24.
Early in the season, we werent all together, La Grande coach Wes McAllaster said. We had some players gone to (sports) camps.
The team also faced adversity when teammate Rohs Kuppinger of Joseph was killed in an automobile accident June 13.
Kuppinger had only played in two games and made it to a handful of practices, but his death gave the team a reality check.
Rohs death had a big impact on these kids, McAllaster said. I think hes looking down on us now. Every time we get into a bad situation (on the field), we come out smelling like roses. Its like hes looking after us.
McAllaster doesnt like to think Rain Roofing has used Kuppinger as a Win one for the Gipper type of motivator, but in their own way, I think each (player) has thought about him at times.
Assistant coach Terry Fischer has been a big help, too.
Hes been around the core group of these players since they were young and has given me insight on what each one can do, McAllaster said. Hes especially done a great job with the pitchers.
Momentum has also been a factor. The roster, filled with players from the La Grande High School team that advanced to the Class 3A quarterfinals in May, also includes two players who were on Joseph High Schools state playoff squad. So the success from the prep season had a carryover effect heading into the summer.
Josephs Jimmie Baynes and Dollen Stroup, both Wapiti League all-stars, joined a strong group of La Grande players, which includes Greater Oregon All-Leaguers Tanner Abel, Derek Fischer, Shane Slover and Aaron Thomas.
Ty Mellinger, a 2000 La Grande High School graduate who was an Intermountain Conference all-star, is also in the lineup.
Talent-wise Ive had better teams than this, but more than anything these guys find a way to win, McAllaster said. As a team, they really believe in what theyre doing.
This is a great bunch of guys to play with, Baynes said. Ive never played with these guys before, but after a couple of tournaments early in the season I knew they were pretty good.
The bar was set pretty high by the La Grande players entering the summer.
Right after high school (let out), we had a goal set to get to state, shortstop Zach Glasser said. Glasser is the only player on the roster with experience this deep in the playoffs after playing on a Babe Ruth team in Lewiston, Idaho, that advanced to regionals in 1997.
The tournament will feature teams from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Theres going to be some awesome teams down there, but well be right there, too, second baseman Jason Smith said. Im just going to enjoy the moment.
AMERICAN LEGION NORTHWEST CLASS A REGIONAL TOURNAMENT
La Grande plays Richland, Wash., at 11:30 a.m. PDT Friday in its opener in Powell, Wyo.
La Grande (26-9) has won 11 straight and 22 of its last 25 games.
Other teams featured include Service Post 28 (Alaska); Powell, Wyo.; Wheatland, Wyo.; Bitterroot, Mont.; Buhl, Idaho; Burlington, Wash.