SISTERS — Few seasons during Steve Hodges’ coaching tenure at Sisters High have been quite like 2016.

The Outlaws went into the season as winners of five straight Sky-Em League baseball championships, an impressive stretch that included multiple runs deep into the Class 4A postseason and featured an appearance in the 2014 state championship game.

Last season, though … few have been like last season.

Hodges, now in his 11th year as the Outlaws’ coach, attributes it to inexperience: The 2016 roster included only one senior to go with a mix of juniors and sophomores.

“Last year, we had some guys that had to grow up a little bit, baseballwise — first year on varsity, getting at-bats and stuff,” Hodges recalls.

Sisters finished the season 13-10, including five league losses that were the program’s most since 2010. The Outlaws scored just 125 runs — the program’s fewest since joining the current 4A in 2007. They missed the state playoffs for the first time since 2009 and for just the third time under Hodges.

“All of us guys have been playing together since we were 9 years old,” Sisters senior pitcher Zach Morgan says. “We knew last year wouldn’t be our year, but you always want to compete. We knew coming in that last year was sort of playing to get better, and this year was really our year that we were going to take it.”

Certainly, the in-game action helped hone the Outlaws, who came into this season a more mature squad with seven all-league returners. But there is more to Sisters’ return to the top and unprecedented start to the 2017 campaign.

The Outlaws’ astounding improvement is about more than just repetitions and experience. It is about the personalities that have become unleashed this season, that have kept the No. 1-ranked Outlaws (13-1) loose as they are off to the best start in program history.

“It’s so much different,” Sisters senior catcher Ryan Funk says of the team atmosphere compared with last season. “We’re all more active, I feel like, than last year. We didn’t have as many seniors last year (one) as this year (seven), and I really feel like these seniors are really stepping up into a leadership role and really keeping this team in line and keeping us energized.

“It’s more loose. This year, it’s more straightforward. We just play. This team is a lot more focused than years prior.”

The focus stems from by-the-book players such as Jake Larson — players who ask that teammates do everything with purpose so as to better prepare for each game. As a balance for Sisters, Funk and Alec Gannon step in to keep the team at ease, making jokes every now and then and cracking up teammates to maintain a loose atmosphere.

That balance, Morgan says, it critical for Sisters, which is one of just three teams in the 4A with only one loss this season.

“If you have everyone who’s a stick-to-the-book guy, it’s not going to be any fun. And we play this game for fun,” Morgan says. “But if we have everyone who’s a jokester, we’re not going to win many games because we can’t get a lot done in practice. You’re not going to get better, and we can’t achieve our goal. It’s important to keep it light and have fun but to get to work and get it done.”

The Outlaws focus on each practice rep, which has helped them rack up the second-most runs (132) in 4A while allowing just 33 with a lineup that is as deep as any in the state. Last week against Junction City, for example, all nine Sisters starters had at least one hit and eight finished with at least one RBI.

“This lineup has real potential to score a lot of runs,” Hodges says. “I like the fact that we have some hitters in each of those spots. There’s been years that every coach has that after you get your core guys, your middle of the order, sometimes (production) drops off and you have to do other things with those guys. But this group here, there’s some swingers.”

Still, Sisters maintains an enjoyable atmosphere. Nicknames abound: as simple as “Cookie” for Ryan Cook and “Bert” for Jonathan Bertagna to more clever monikers such as “Pherry” (pronounced “furry”) for Christopher Luz and “Bug” for Hayden Parsons. Those identities have helped the Outlaws form an even stronger bond, the effects of which are evident on the field.

“It’s nice to know that everyone has your back, so you don’t have to be super-stiff all the time,” adds Morgan. “You don’t think you’re in it for yourself.”

“I definitely feel this is a stronger team this year than it was last year,” Funk says. “We have better pitching, better hitting, everyone’s matured. We’re just pure athletes out here, just playing and having fun.

“That’s what it’s all about.”

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

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