PENDLETON — Tucker Zander has not played a high school baseball game since Pendleton lost to Central in the 2019 5A state championship game. He was a sophomore.
With the help of video, a shortened summer season, and discussions with area coaches, Eastern Oregon University baseball coach Mike McInerney said he was confident in signing Zander on Nov. 9 to play for the Mountaineers.
“It’s a bit of a leap of faith,” McInerney said. “I saw him play when he was younger, and some this past summer.”
The 5-foot-8, 160-pound Zander offers the Mountaineers versatility. The right-handed pitcher also can play every infield position.
“It’s exciting,” Zander said. “I went up there a few weeks ago. I think this program will be a great fit for me. The coach there is pretty good. He was the pitching coach at Western Oregon (University).”
The coronavirus pandemic wiped out Zander’s junior year, but he and his Pendleton teammates are hoping to get in their senior season come spring.
“It’s been a while since I had Bucks across my jersey,” Zander said. “It’s kind of sad, but it is what it is. We were really lucky to play summer ball.”
Zander was invited to play in a showcase in September in Medford, where he played for Team Oregon State. He played several positions, allowing him to display his skills.
“It was a pretty cool event,” Zander said. “I played really well. I made myself a valuable prospect.”
While Zander’s versatility is a plus, McInerney said it has not been decided what position he will play.
“That will be his decision,” McInerney said. “We will evaluate him when he comes in. It will depend on what direction he wants to go. If he wants to contend for a position on the field, we will allow him to do that. He could be a two-way player for us. He’s athletic, he’s hungry and he wants to be here. He will find a way to get on the field.”
Pendleton coach T.J. Haguewood said Zander has worked hard for the opportunity to play college ball.
“He has worked his butt off to get where he is,” Haguewood said. “Tucker is very accurate with the baseball and has a quick release. His real strength is placing the ball, whether it is in the field or on the hill. He is the epitome of what we like as players at Pendleton, and he is grateful to the people who help him.”
Zander has been able to work on his skills and strength this fall — as much as the COVID-19 mandates allow.
“The high school opened up weightlifting sessions after school about a month ago,” Zander said. “We get about an hour, and we are fortunate to get that. We had a five-week practice where we got to scrimmage against our own teammates. It was beneficial for us to get out there and prepare for the spring.”
Mounties coming together
McInerney was hired in January to revitalize the EOU baseball team that last played in 2006. He spent the past eight years as the associate head coach at Western Oregon University, working mainly as the Wolves’ pitching coach.
McInerney has put together a solid team at EOU with mainly high school and community college players. The cornerstone of the Mounties is junior left-handed pitcher Kolbe Bales of Dufur, who followed McInerney from WOU.
“Having Kolbe makes it easier with the pitching staff,” McInerney said. “He knows how things are done.”
McInerney has done a good job of signing local talent. He picked up right-handed pitcher Cooper Roberts of Pendleton in his first round of signees, along with a handful of La Grande High School players, Irrigon’s Adrian Roa (Blue Mountain Community College), and a couple of top players out of the Tri-Cities.
“We had an emphasis on getting kids in our region,” McInerney said. “We lucked out. There was some legitimate talent in our region that wanted to play here, and others that weren’t signed yet. If you are able to get regional talent and they have a good experience, it’s a benefit for the college and the community.”
Of the community college players coming in, four are from Treasure Valley.
“I know coach (Brady) Baker, and they are entrenched with tradition on how to do things right,” McInerney said. “They buy in 100 percent and they are incredibly coachable.”
The Mounties also have a strong pitching staff, including five left-handers.
“We have a really good balance,” McInerney said. “We have a little bit of everything.”
McInerney said the Mounties do not yet have a schedule, but when they do, they are ready to go.
“No one has dealt with COVID and restarting a program,” he said. “We are off the cuff with what we are doing. The athletic department and the university have been very supportive. Even with the craziness that is happening, I see us building this quickly and being successful.”