The boys of summer are back in town.
A 51-game regular-season schedule starts Friday night for the Bend Elks, who open their 2007 summer collegiate wood-bat baseball campaign by hosting the Gresham Mountaineers for a 7 o'clock nonleague contest at Vince Genna Stadium.
A long-term lease agreement, strong advance ticket sales, a promising roster and continued improvements to the stadium provide a bright outlook both on and off the field for the Elks, who are entering their eighth year in Central Oregon.
"It should be an exciting season," says Jim Richards, the Elks' founder, owner and general manager.
One of the first things fans will notice upon entering the stadium on Friday is the new brick backstop, poles and protective netting that extends from dugout to dugout behind home plate and along the baselines.
Other stadium improvements include fresh paint around the perimeter of the facility, a rebuilt pitcher's mound, and continued efforts to upgrade the sound system by adjusting speaker height and location.
Richards, with an eye to the future, says he envisions a 15,000-square-foot on-site baseball academy building, expanded seating and beer garden capacity, and upgrades to the team clubhouse area.
"In the last couple of years we have expressed an interest in acquiring the stadium from the (Bend Metro Park and Recreation District), but they have not wanted to part with the facility," says Richards. "In lieu of a transaction, we have been given a longer-term agreement that provides us with some comfort and freedom to do some, but not all, of the capital improvements we would like to make."
The Elks led the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League in attendance last season, averaging 1,286 fans per league game. And they set a franchise record for attendance - including a single-game team-high of 2,143 on Aug. 2.
Richards notes that ticket revenue is already 30 percent ahead of last season's figures at the same point in the year.
The on-field product hopes to contend for a WCCBL playoff spot.
"On paper, we look great," says Bend head coach Casey Powell. "The playoffs absolutely is our goal. That's our goal every year.
"We're trying to help guys improve skills and make their college teams better, but at the same time these guys want to win while they're here."
The roster is loaded with Division I players, including third baseman Drew George, outfielder Koa Kahalehoe and pitcher Brian Budrow, all of Oregon State. Several other Pacific-10 Conference players are expected to be in the lineup, including Brian Pearl, an infielder/pitcher from Washington, and Kirk Erickson, a catcher who is the first Elks player ever from Stanford.
Infielder Derek Poppert of the University of San Francisco made the all-freshman team in the West Coast Conference. And catcher Travis Georgius was part of Lewis-Clark State's 2007 NAIA national championship team.
Most of the players on this year's Elks roster hail from schools up and down the West Coast. But two - pitcher Tyler Lyons and outfielder Dusty Harvard - will be making their way to Bend with Elks assistant coach Trevor Brown from Oklahoma State.
"Who wouldn't want to play in Bend, in a minor-league ballpark, in front of the biggest crowds in the league?" proclaims Richards. "People want to come to Central Oregon and play in our environment here."
Elks players with local ties include Summit High graduates Johnny Hirko and J.T. Eilertson (both of Western Oregon), Redmond High grad Marques Hase (Gonzaga), and Madras High product Vaughn Prow (Columbia Basin).
Hirko is one of four returnees from last season, joining Budrow, Brad McAtee and Scott Lonergan - all of whom are pitchers.
The roster is still shaking itself out, as players deal with issues ranging from injuries to summer-school requirements. Others, like those with Oregon State and Oklahoma State, are participating in the NCAA Super Regionals this weekend. And the Elks could still lose a few players to the pros, as Major League Baseball's amateur draft is scheduled today and Friday.
"We're going to be thin the way we always are the first weekend with only about 50 percent of the roster being here," notes Richards. "This is the crazy world of summer collegiate baseball. The roster is always changing."
Powell, the on-field manager, is a 31-year-old graduate of Bend's Mountain View High School who played collegiately at Linfield in McMinnville and is currently the head coach at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
Powell, who has served as an Elks head coach or assistant in four of the team's first seven seasons, likes the makeup of the 2007 Bend roster.
"Our pitching staff looks really strong," says Powell. "We have guys coming in who saw significant innings for their (college) teams in the spring.
"We have a lot of speed in the outfield, and that will help us out. The infield has a number of guys who can move around and play different positions, and we should be solid behind the plate."
One person who won't be seen at the stadium on opening night is the ballpark's namesake, Vince Genna. Bend's unofficial baseball ambassador since the mid-1950s, Genna died April 7 at the age of 86 due to complications from a heart attack.
"The one thing you won't see here this year is Vince," says Richards. "He was the first guy at the stadium every day. He was an inspiration to us all in keeping us focused on keeping this place meant for what it was intended for, and that's baseball. He will certainly be an inspiration during the season and for years to come."