Prior to an OSAA class 5A play-In game between the 11 ranked Hood River Valley Eagles (16-11) and the struggling St. Helens Lions (7-18), there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome. There was simply no way whatsoever that Hood River would lose. The only question was, would the Eagles throw their first no-hitter of the year?
That’s exactly what the high-flying Eagles did. Senior hurler Connor Coerper (season-high 14 strikeouts) and sophomore pitcher Greyson Losee combined on a no-hitter to help lead Hood River to an 8-0 win over St. Helens Friday at HRV’s Traner Field.
The relatively easy win for the Eagles, as expected, helped propel them to an OSAA/U.S. Bank/Les Schwab Tires first round state playoff game for a fifth straight year. The Eagles, guided by coach Erich Harjo, will play the No. 6 ranked Sandy Pioneers (20-7) in a 5 p.m. matchup today at Sandy High School. The winner advances to the quarterfinals on Friday to meet the winner of today’s matchup between La Salle Prep (14-13) and Crater (21-6).
“The guys have worked so hard all year and the game was kind of a testament to how hard everybody has been working,” said Harjo. “Connor obviously had a phenomenal game. Every guy, every day all year has played well on our team. I feel so proud of our team and what they’ve been able to accomplish. At the end of the game, I told the guys that they won the game before it even started. When they were warming up in the infield and in the outfield, they appeared to be very well focused on what they needed to do to win.”
Hood River jumped in front early, capitalizing on three St. Helens errors to go up 3-0 in the first inning. Leadoff batter Losee (2-for-3, single, double) helped ignite a rally when he reached base on an error. JJ Mears (2-for-4, two singles) followed when he ripped a line drive to left field for a single.
“It feels really good to be going to the state playoffs,” said Mears, one of just three seniors along with Coerper and Trenton Hough. “It was good to get a shutout and put lots of runs on the board early, which helped us out a lot. Going into the game, we felt very confident that we could get a win. Getting a no-hitter was good for our pitching staff because it provides them with a big confidence boost. After playing Sandy earlier, I think we realize that we’re capable of beating them. We had a rough start at the beginning of the season. We’ve regained our confidence now, we’re playing very well, and we have lots of momentum. Our goal is to win the state championship and I think we’ll have a good chance to do that.”
Coerper (1-for-3) then blasted a two-run homer over the center field fence to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead. Isaac Beaman (1-for-3, two RBI) and Ryan Gray (1-for-3) then reached base on consecutive Lion errors. Beaman scored on Caden Leiblein’s RBI single to put HRV up 3-0 after one inning.
“It felt good to hit a home run and I love scoring in the first inning, because it just gives your team lots of momentum,” said Coerper, who has four homers this year. “Baseball is a team sport and I didn’t even know that I had a no-hitter until our coaches told me in the seventh inning. I was just focusing on going out there and helping our team get the win and throw as few pitches as possible. We all came out here today feeling confident and ready to compete on a high level. I don’t really think too much about the caliber of our opponent or whether they’re a good or a bad team. I just always try to go out there with the mindset that I’m going to shut them down.”
Coerper was firing away on the mound with an 88 mile per hour fastball, which simply flew right past helpless Lion batters throughout the game. Coerper struck out three Lions batters in a scoreless second frame and had two more K’s in the third. Hood River extended its lead to 4-0 in the bottom of the third on Hough’s RBI single, driving in Beaman, who earlier drew a leadoff walk.
“Everyone has helped us become such a great baseball team,” said Coerper. “This is just a great group of guys to come out and compete with and I love everyone (on) our team. Our goal is to get the first-place medals and win the state championship trophy. If we do that, then we’ll definitely fulfill our expectations that we have for this year. We’re just going to keep rolling with the momentum and the confidence that we have and keep it going all the way to the state finals.”
The Lions, guided by coach Jeff Timmons, had their first baserunner of the game in the fourth when sophomore starting pitcher Joe Rea drew a leadoff walk from Coerper. It was the only opportunity the Lions would have a chance to score and possibly avoid a shutout and it was the only inning that they had baserunners.
“That’s a real good baseball team that we ran into today and they’re (Eagles) the best team that we’ve faced all year,” said Timmons. “Their record does not show how good they are. They lost a few tough games early in the season. They’re in a really competitive league with a good team like Pendleton (17-8) that has beat them a couple of times. Their starting pitcher was one of the best that we’ve seen this year and the guy who threw at the end seemed just as good as well.”
Rea was put out at second base and David Parks was out at first on an ensuing Eagle defensive double play.
The Lions had another chance with one more baserunner when Jacob Allen reached base on a dropped strike three by Eagle catcher Ryan Gray.
Allen was left stranded when Coerper struckout the next Lion batter for the third out of the inning.
Hood River extended its advantage in the bottom of the fourth with a two-out rally. Beaman’s RBI single drove home Losee, who earlier hit a leadoff single. Beaman scored on Gray’s RBI single. Gray then scored on Leiblein’s RBI double to the left field wall, lifting the Eagles in front 7-0.
The 6-foot-3 strong armed Coerper continued throwing a solid combination of high velocity fastballs and curveballs to keep the Lions off balance. Coerper struck out a total of six straight Lion batters from the fourth through the sixth inning. It marked the second no-hitter of his career for Coerper, who also threw one last year.
“I felt like we played well late in the season, but we didn’t see any pitchers throwing over 70 miles per hour during that time span,” said Timmons. “None of our kids had ever been in a postseason game. We were a little nervous at the beginning of the game and we looked like a team that had not been in a playoff game. They (Eagles) took advantage of our mistakes, they did a great job and I’ll take my hat off to them.”
Hood River added a run in the bottom of the sixth inning. Beaman’s RBI sacrifice groundout drove in Mears, who hit a leadoff single, extending the margin to 8-0.
“I didn’t feel that St. Helens was a bad team, but they definitely came in as kind of an underdog,” said Harjo. “Our guys just relished the fact that they were at home and they were pumped up and ready to go.”
In the top of the seventh, St. Helens had one final chance to score. Losee relieved Coeper and he struck out Parks for the first out. The next two Lion batters were both putout on infield groundouts at first base, where Coerper continued to shine defensively at that position as well to conclude the contest. Hood River connected for nine hits off of the Lions trio of pitchers Rea, Kyle Harris and Owen Wolfe.
“Sandy is a good ball club and Rick Martin (Pioneer coach) has a good knack for getting his teams ready to play, like they did when they beat us in the 2014 state title game,” said Harjo. “We’ve kind of locked horns a few times ever since that game. We’re ready to go play though. We’ll play on artificial turf, so we’ll have to wear shoes with rubber spikes and not the kind that we normally wear, so things will be just a little bit different. Little things like that can sometimes have a tendency to throw the guys off. I think my guys are mentally tough enough so nothing like that should bother them though. It all comes down to playing strong defense, having strong pitching and getting timely hitting. If we do that better than them, then we’re going to win.”
Today’s game is a rematch of an earlier nonleague contest, which Sandy won 4-2 over Hood River at home on March 20. Sandy, the Northwest Oregon Conference runner-up (14-3 league record) to Hillsboro (15-2 NWOC, 15-12 overall), is on a roll with wins in 16 of its last 19 games. Sandy is 17-3 against Class 5A teams. Hood River is 10-6 versus 5A squads and has won 13 of its last 17 games.
“It’s going to be a contest between two really evenly matched teams,” said Harjo. “Coerper has the experience of being a starting pitcher in the 2016 state title game (a 12-2 loss to Summit) so he’s familiar with playoff game pressure. All our guys are as cool as a cucumber in the playoffs, so they’ll go out there and do their thing. We’ll do the best we can to try and win and Sandy will do exactly the same thing. We’re excited to be in the playoffs. I’m happy for our team for making it this far and it’s going to be a great game.”
Sandy, led by coach Rick Martin, is phenomenal defensively and ranked second in the 5A level with 3.1 runs per game average allowed. Sandy is ninth offensively (7.0 runs per game average).
Hood River has the 15th ranked offense at 6.1 runs per game average and is 11th defensively (4.5 runs per game average allowed).
“Coerper is a very good pitcher and Erich has a fantastic program and he always has high quality teams,” said Martin. “I’m certainly worried about the game, because Coerper and Losee are both very strong pitchers. It will absolutely be another close game like the earlier one. I expect Hood River to play us pretty tough. Even though they (Eagles) are a little younger than our team, those guys are probably just as comfortable with playoff pressure as we are.”
An experienced Pioneer squad (12 seniors) is in the state playoffs for the first time in four years. In its last playoff appearance, Sandy captured the 2014 championship with an 8-3 win over Hood River.
The Eagles have a huge advantage in playoff experience since they’ve advanced to state four straight years, including three consecutive finals appearances (2014, ‘15, ‘16).
Harjo led the Eagles to the 2015 state championship (a 2-0 win over Liberty) and he’s hoping to lead HRV to another title this year.
Next up for the Eagles is the first round of the OSAA baseball state playoffs, as the boys will travel to Sandy in the opening round to face the Pioneers on March 23.