A rebuilding year, check. A group of first-time varsity athletes, check. A pandemic, of course. A young coach taking over as head coach for Tigard Tigers baseball, why not?
Last year, Oregon-native James Leach stepped in as head coach for the Tigard varsity baseball team. But for the then 25-year-old, this was no first-time experience. Attending Western Oregon University and studying towards a Masters of the Arts in Teaching, he had played for the Division 2 collegiate team and was a part of the coaching staff. In addition, he had experience coaching for the high-school Post 20 American Legion Dirtbags out of West Salem and for West Linn High School under head coach Joe Monahan for a few months.
Then, at the first of 2020, he was hired on to take the vacant spot at Tigard left by Tom Campbell. Campbell was no stranger; he had coached the Tigers for a combined 26 years with over 700 career wins in his full 41 years of coaching.
“Wherever he went, success followed, good things seem to happen,” Leach told Tigard Life. “So in that aspect, I am very honored to kind of step into those shoes and in some ways to continue what has been a successful program.”
Leach was ready to go and put his mark on the team. Unfortunately, it would have to wait a year after the spring sports season was scrapped in response to what was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with a team full of seniors, they missed out on their last high school chance to play ball.
“I had, I believe, nine seniors last year – a large number – and they rallied around each, not only each other, but myself as a new coach,” Leach said. “They just kind of jumped on board and were excited to go. So, to have a large group of seniors and to see them lose out on that was a huge bummer.”
But, in some ways, it was a helpful and necessary trial-and-error period, he said, in terms of practice plans, real skills, communication, slipping into the head coach position and looking ahead to the big picture knowing that baseball was going to move forward at some point.
Ultimately, this led to this year’s roster of 12 with junior Brock Sandford and senior Kolby Shimojima as the only returners from the 2019 high school season.
“I have a large number of underclassmen rolling around with me at the varsity level this year that, in essence, went from playing eighth-grade baseball to varsity baseball,” Leach said. “They didn’t get a freshman/JV year to get the experience of what high school baseball was like.”
To further complicate things, the three sports seasons had a few weeks of overlap between them due to the cramming of all sports between March and mid-June. This meant that the football and baseball practices would’ve been happening simultaneously and on the same field. To sort out conflicts, the baseball athletes drew the short straw, with regular 7 a.m. practices three to four days per week.
“The best part about (the early practices) was I had about 30 to 35 kids at 7 a.m., consistently showing up, wanting to get better and just to be around each other as much as we could, six feet, masks, you know what it is,” Leach said.
So how did the season turn out for the Tigers? With a 3-9 Three Rivers League win-loss record, it appears grim but is actually to be expected in a rebuilding year, with this season’s primary focus being to improve on everyone’s mental game.
Leach noted that he, along with the athletes, noticed profound growth in terms of communication on the field, responsibility and understanding the inner workings of the game, especially in light of the eighth grade to varsity-level jump.
“I think a large part of that is they see the growth,” he said. “I think that helps them to come back and say, even though it’s not showing win-loss, we are growing and it’s paying off.”
This season played out over 18 regular-season games as compared to the 2019 season’s 27, limiting time on the field. And should any of the athletes have a COVID-19 exposure despite a negative test, they’d be pulled out for the following 14 days encapsulating six games.
Leach mentioned that one such case involved a JV player whose 14 days ended following what would’ve been his final game.
“I had a kid get pulled right before a game a little over a week ago, and they basically told him, ‘Hey man, COVID exposure. I know you don’t have it. You’ve been tested, you’re negative, but you’re out 14 days.’ That ended his season,” he said.
Communicating with the player, Leach said, he was staying healthy and showing no signs of COVID-19. So, he came up with us on varsity for our final game on the 22nd to get back out there and be around the guys.
In the coming years, Leach hopes to stick around, grow as a coach and grow this team. Many of its members will be returning next season.
“I would be very grateful to stick around here, even if it is for one more year,” he said. “But I want to make this long term. I want to build a community of baseball here in Tigard. And as I talked with the kids, I tell them all the time we’re all going through growing pains, I’m going through growing pains. I’m learning with these kids just as they are.”