State champion Eugene Challengers off to American Legion Northwest Regional tournament

State champion Eugene Challengers off to American Legion Northwest Regional tournament

It’s been a whirlwind two months for coach Kenny Niles and the Eugene Challengers American Legion baseball team.

Following a pandemic-shortened high school baseball season, the Challengers put together an ambitious summer schedule that included multiple doubleheaders every week — 59 games in total over two months. That ambition paid off last week with Eugene winning the state tournament, knocking off six-time defending champion Medford in the process.

“It’s been awesome. It’s been a short season but it was super fun,” Niles said. “It was hard. A lot of these kids had never played a full varsity season, so we knew we had to drink out of the fire hose. It was like building the plane as you’re flying it.”

Nonetheless, the Challengers (47-12) jelled as the season went along, recovering from a slow start to win 28 of their final 30 games, including a 6-2 win over the Medford Mustangs in last Wednesday’s state championship game. That victory earned Eugene a spot in the American Legion Northwest Regional tournament, which begins Wednesday in Gillette, Wyoming. The winner of that tourney will travel to North Carolina for nationals next week.

The one thing last year taught us was don’t take anything for granted,” Niles said.

The Challengers went 41-6 last summer but there was no state tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then all high school sports were delayed until this spring, when baseball played an abbreviated schedule directly on the heels of fall and winter sports.

“The high school baseball season was really sloppy. It felt rushed,” said Niles, who is also the baseball coach at Churchill High School. “None of these kids had played varsity baseball before. We figured pitching would be ahead of hitting because those kids could continue to throw and work out during the pandemic, but a lot of these hitters hadn’t seen live pitching in a year.

That rustiness carried over to the start of the American Legion season, when Eugene opened with a 17-9 record before winning 18 games in a row. Back-to-back losses derailed that streak, but the Challengers won their next 10 games and then closed out the season with a championship at the state tournament in Roseburg.

Our growth has been exponential,” Niles said. “We went from being a pretty average baseball team to being a team that could win a national championship.”

The Challengers left for Wyoming Monday morning, flying out of Redmond to Billings, Montana. They then took a bus for the 230-mile drive to Gillette. A win at regionals would mean Eugene’s 24-person travel party will need to book flights to Shelby, North Carolina, for the national tournament which begins Aug. 12.

It’s been a little bit of a blur,” Niles said of the 2021 summer season. “We’ve faced some absolutely tremendous competition and beaten a lot of really good clubs. I like our chances in Wyoming.

“We can’t be content with just going there. We’ve got to stay focused, but I like our arms. We’ve got some really good pitching and I think that gives us a good chance.

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