Sisters baseball sets the standard
Preview of the Central Oregon baseball season

No way Steve Hodges could have predicted his team doing what it did last season.

Even with back-to-back Sky-Em League baseball titles in his pocket, the Sisters High coach believed there was plenty of work to be done with the 2013 Outlaws.

A school-record 26 wins later, Sisters was in the Class 4A state semifinals for the first time since 2008. A 2-1 loss to Henley denied the Outlaws their first trip to the state championship since 2002.

“We just train to get better,” says Hodges, the eighth-year Sisters coach who guided his team to a 26-3 record last season. “To be honest, we don’t talk a lot about records or league championships or state playoff things. We just try to get better, identify goals.”

With major contributors returning from last season, the Outlaws are poised for a fourth straight Sky-Em title — and perhaps a deeper run in the Class 4A state playoffs.

“I have really high expectations for this team,” says senior Joey Morgan, the reigning 4A player of the year. “Being a senior and seeing all the teams that have come through here, I think this team really matches all their intensity. You don’t really want to compare too much, but I really think this team has a good shot at going just as far, if not farther, as teams in the past.”

Led by Morgan — Sisters’ ace, standout catcher and effective corner infielder who has committed to Oregon — the Outlaws enter this season having swept their 15-game conference schedule each of the past two years. They are 44-1 in league play dating back to 2011 and have increased their win total each of the past three seasons, from 23 in 2011 to 26 a year ago.

“Considering this is going to be my junior year ... and my record in league is 30-0 — not a lot of high school players get to have that record,” says Justin Harrer, a returning all-state infielder and all-league pitcher for the Outlaws. “We try not to concern ourselves with what other schools are saying about us or what coaches and players are saying. But we definitely do know that with a record like that, we’re the team to beat.”

Sisters returns all three of its top pitchers (Morgan, Harrer and senior Jardon Weems) from last year’s squad that guided the Outlaws to a program-record 24-game winning streak and allowed just 79 runs all season. Add in second-team all-conference outfielder Ben Larson and the Outlaws have a stable of high-caliber talent.

“Any time you put that type of experience on the field, and you have the younger players watch those guys perform each day, it’s obviously great to have that in your program,” Hodges says. “That gives them a lot of confidence too, knowing that those guys are on their team and wearing the same uniforms. It’s pretty hard to replace that type of experience.”

The question mark, Hodges says, lies with freshmen who will be stepping into key roles vacated by graduated seniors. But early on, those newcomers have shown their worth — including Ryan Funk, who will catch when Morgan pitches and play the field when Morgan goes behind the plate.

“(The freshmen) have played a lot of baseball,” Hodges says. “Now they just have to adapt to the varsity level and the speed of the game. Let things come as they come and try not to put too much pressure on them and keep coaching.”

Sisters has been in this situation before. Joey Morgan is a four-year starter. Justin Harrer cracked the starting lineup as a freshman two years ago. That, Hodges says, is a huge asset.

“We’ve got two guys on this team that started when they were freshmen, so they understand that role,” the Sisters coach says. “That’s good, because they can help mentor those young guys because they did it themselves.”

Also valuable is the championship mindset that transitions from the soccer field to the diamond.

Harrer, like several of his baseball teammates, was a part of the Outlaws’ first boys soccer state title team this past fall. They have tasted a championship. They remember the sensation of winning the final game of the season. And what Harrer felt at the beginning of the soccer season is similar to what he feels now.

“That feeling isn’t saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to win state this year,’” Harrer clarifies. “It’s more, ‘Alright. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to improve. We’ve got to hone our skills and figure out how to play as a team.’ ... The feeling around here is not that we’re playing to win a state title. We’re playing for one game at a time. We’re playing to win that one game.”

The bar has been set, and it is a lofty height. Sisters heads into the season with a fourth straight Sky-Em championship in sight. That is Step 1 in the Outlaws’ quest to become the kings of Class 4A.

“We want to defend our league title. That’s our first goal,” Hodges says. “Then we just want to be a team that is competitive at the end of the season. We want to look back and say we progressed as a team and put ourselves in a position to compete. I just want this team to realize its fullest potential, and that’s how we approach it.”

“It is a very solid reputation here,” Harrer adds. “It’s something that definitely doesn’t happen a lot. You want to maintain that and keep that tradition going.”

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

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