EUGENE — Back in April, the Mid Columbia Stallions softball team embarked on a mission of going to state.
Now, after four months of hard work and determination, the group of 11 Special Olympics athletes and four coaches can call themselves state champions.
But the Stallions didn’t just win all three of their games at last weekend’s state tournament. They were recognized by their peers with the Sportsmanship Award in their four-team division.
“I’m so proud of the athletes, not just for winning, but for the encouragement they gave to each other and to the other teams at state,” head coach Marcie Logan said of her team, which is comprised of four players from Hood River and seven from The Dalles.
The Stallions returned home from Eugene toting a Sportsmanship trophy and 11 gold medals, proving to themselves and everyone else involved that when a team works together, it can accomplish anything.
“I knew we would play well, but not that well,” Logan said. “It feels good to see what these athletes are capable of, and to know that we helped them reach these heights. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
Logan and three assistants — Beckie Logan, Sam Evans and Dave Leder — held practices in The Dalles twice a week for three months, and once a week in July.
The team had been preparing for a qualifying tournament June 29 in Hillsboro, but the event was cancelled due to rain.
“In a way, we were lucky to have a chance to go to state,” Logan said. “But the fact that we live in an isolated geographic location, and that the state office worked really hard to give every team a chance to compete, it all came together.”
Once the Stallions learned they would be competing at state, the players began to iron out strategy, hone their skills and establish positions.
And, like any championship team, the Stallions relied on a star player/on-the-field leader to keep them together.
Pitcher Jay Johnston of Hood River hurled all three games at state and socked two homeruns — one, a three-run shot in the 10-3 championship win over the Corvallis Cobras.
“Once I relaxed and didn’t try to kill the ball, I was able to find the gaps,” he said.
Johnston was equally steady on the mound, recording numerous strikeouts and stellar defensive plays in every game. He and first baseman Donnie Love of The Dalles proved to be the difference with their consistency and tireless work ethic.
“I was a little nervous before the championship,” Love said, “but I thought that if we could play the same way we did against them in the first game, we could win.”
Love, Johnston and the Stallions had beaten the Cobras 9-6 on Saturday, but knew the championship game wouldn’t be easy. Corvallis boasted a heavy artillery of its own, and matched the Stallions run for run in the early innings of game one.
But the Stallions used speed, timely hitting and smart baserunning to put themselves over the top. Twelve-year-old Kelly Stephens and 15-year-old J.J. Petty, both of The Dalles, set the table at the top of the lineup, while Johnston, Love, Katie Tager and Willy Junker anchored the middle of the lineup.
Logan, who also coaches Special Olympics skiing, hopes to have everyone back next year to defend the title. But, no matter what happens, she will always have fond memories of the 2002 campaign.
“This is a season I’ll always remember,” she said.