Central Oregon Elks

Seven Bend Elks have Central Oregon ties. All seven played high school baseball in the area, and all seven played for the Central Oregon Bucks — the Elks’ developmental squad.

Jo Carroll

Position: Utility

HS: Mountain View

College: Linfield

Zach Close

Position: OF

HS: Crook County

College: AIB College of Business

Justin Erlandson

Position: OF

HS: Bend High

College: Scottsdale (Ariz.) CC

Landon Frost

Position: OF

HS: Summit

College: Corban

Kevin Hamann

Position: P

HS: Summit

College: Clark

Jerren Larimer

Pos: IF

HS: Crook County

College: Treasure Valley CC

Grant Newton

Position: Utility

HS: Bend High

College: Seattle

Zach Close grew up watching the Bend Elks — as did most of the seven former Central Oregon high school players on the current roster.

They idolized the Elks. Jo Carroll, for instance, owns a glove autographed by former Elks players. Maybe you remember seeing an adolescent Justin Erlandson, who lived just down the street from Vince Genna Stadium and would wait in front of the Elks’ dugout after home games, baseball in hand, pleading for signatures.

But now, the cleat is on the other foot. It is Close, Carroll and Erlandson who are the idols, who are greeted outside the home clubhouse by young Elks fans seeking their heroes’ prized autographs.

Says Erlandson, a first-year Elk and a 2013 Bend High School graduate: “It’s almost like a professional athlete thing.”

Such was the case for the handful of current local Elks players when they were kids — diminutive Little Leaguers basking in the presence of baseball titans.

“Looking out there and seeing how big those kids were, that’s what I remember,” Close says. “ ‘Dang, I wish I was that big and was that good at baseball.’ ”

“They were like god figures, like pros,” adds Carroll, a 2011 Mountain View graduate and second-year Elk who just wrapped up his junior year at Linfield College in McMinnville. “I thought they were professional baseball players. And now, it’s just me out there playing.”

Close nods in agreement and interjects: “Look at us now. We’re here. A lot of hard work pays off.”

Not all the former Central Oregon prep standouts grew up watching the Elks. Landon Frost, for example, moved to Bend from Eugene during his high school years. While at Summit High, from which he graduated in 2012, he had no idea what the Elks were all about or how much of a staple the organization had become in the Bend community and across Central Oregon.

“I didn’t realize when I came to Bend how much the Elks inspired people,” says Frost, now a rising junior at Corban University in Salem and in his first season with the Elks. “I didn’t honestly hear much about the Elks. When I signed to go to Corban, I found out that the Elks were a huge program and had a lot of big (NCAA Division I) guys. I took it on as a challenge to come back home and be able to play here. When I came to my first Elks game my senior year (in high school), just seeing the atmosphere of the people and the fans, how they were inspired by just baseball … they enjoy baseball here in Bend, which is awesome.”

Despite Frost’s lack of previous exposure to the Elks, he acknowledges the team’s importance. After all, like the other six Central Oregonians now playing for the Elks, Frost played for the Central Oregon Bucks — the Elks’ developmental squad.

That experience has helped each player begin the 2014 season strong.

Through 10 games, Frost boasts a .321 batting average with two doubles and three RBIs. Close, a Crook County High alum who plays at AIB College of Business in Iowa and is in his second season with the Elks, is batting .289 in 10 appearances with four runs and three RBIs. Carroll and Erlandson own .222 averages through Sunday. Both Grant Newton, a Bend High graduate and third-year Elk, and Crook County alum Jerren Larimer, in his second season with the club, just recently arrived in Bend, but Newton already has driven in two runs to go along with a .250 batting average. And pitcher Kevin Hamann, a Summit product and second-year Elk, has held opponents to a .263 batting average in two appearances.

All seven of the locals on the Elks’ 2014 roster agree that they are blessed — blessed to wear the black and gold of their hometown Bend Elks.

“It’s pretty surreal, almost,” Close says. “You get to make people smile. It’s as simple as that. Whether we win or lose, the little kids don’t care. They’ll remember it for the rest of their lives.”

“There’s nothing like walking around town with an Elks shirt on,” says Erlandson, a rising sophomore at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. “People automatically respect you. The amount of support that Bend gives to the Bend Elks is pretty unreal. Especially for us local guys, when the (public address announcer at Genna Stadium) yells out, ‘From Bend, Oregon,’ the crowd goes wild. We love that. We feed off that as we’re up at the plate, too.”

And they are honored to be able to compete within what the locals argue is the best ballpark in the West Coast League — Vince Genna Stadium — in front of the best crowd in the WCL. Playing anywhere else just would not feel the same, they all agree, because no other stadium — no other city — matches what Bend offers.

“Genna’s the best with atmosphere in the league,” Carroll says. “It’s part of the town’s culture every summer for the last 15 years. The whole town comes out to support them. You’ve got people who’ve been here for years and years who love their Elks.

“Playing in the West Coast League is a big accomplishment — for anybody,” Carroll adds. “But being able to play in your hometown makes it that much more special.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com .