The team will travel to Canby and Reynolds on March 18 and 19, and will visit West Linn on March 21.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD -    The unusual break in the Oregon drizzle opened up the chance for the St. Helens baseball team to finally leave the gym, stepping on to the sodden baseball field for the first time in months ahead of next week's opener.

The team will travel to Canby and Reynolds on March 18 and 19, and because of further rainstorms, will visit West Linn on March 21, moving their home opener back to April 1.

“We pray it's ready,” said head coach Jeff Timmons. “We pray.”

The field itself may be green and unsteady, but few things about the players themselves would suggest they are as unproven as their slowly drying field. Last year's squad lost more than a handful of close games, especially early on, but they have nearly everyone back with another year of experience.

Of the four seniors who graduated, only one – second-baseman NAME NAME – saw meaningful time in a starting role. The entire starting pitching staff is set to return, and few of the players to make the varsity squad lack varsity experience.

“The nice thing is that I've got about two kids at each position,” said Timmons. “I've got kids fighting every day instead of that (attitude of) ‘hey, this is my spot.' Everybody's fighting every day to prove to themselves and to the team that they should be the guy that gets to run out there when we make lineup cards.”

Timmons says the competition has been healthy for the team, and great for the individual players, pushing them to succeed on their own and making the entire group better for it. No one position is locked up, meaning players can't sit back and slack off for fear of losing their spot as a starter to someone who was willing to put in the effort.

In years past, if a player knew their position wasn't in jeopardy, they could take days off and not worry about getting the chance to play. All of that has gone out the window with this group.

“Now, I can't get half the kids off the field,” said Timmons, motioning to a player who had picked up his glove and was headed for the outfield. “This guy is gonna stay for another half hour or whatever and take ground balls. It's been awesome.”

The effort and the depth, with the added year of experience and a healthy pitching ace has Timmons thinking – or at least hoping for – playoffs. Bryce Sanford was the team's rock through the first part of the season, but he picked up an injury that began to slow his success. By the end of the season, when his elbow problem was discovered, it was a little too late, but with the offseason to rest, Sanford is set to return in full force.

“All we can expect from him is top-notch stuff. Hopefully this year, not having to throw against everybody's ace, he might pick up a few more wins,” Timmons said. “He had a 3 ERA and the second-most strikeouts in the league and only won one game. It's tough when you're pitching against everybody's ace, especially when we get no-hit twice. There's nothing you can do without run support.”

The door to the post-season is open, according to Timmons, who sees a solid chance for the Lions to break into the top-half of the league. The top four teams from the Northwest Oregon Conference, given the league's strength of schedule, normally make the playoffs, which is the team's goal. Winning a conference title and beating out the Class 6A-bound Bowmen might be a little far-fetched, but a playoff berth would be a major victory. Picking up some wins in the preseason, and finishing the league schedule with a flourish should put St. Helens in the top-24 teams, guaranteeing a post-season visit.

“That's all you've got to do is make the top-24, and everybody's zero and zero again,” said Timmons.

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