Grant Lucas

Last summer was difficult for Derek Chapman.

A year after winning the West Coast League baseball championship, the Bend Elks finished with a dismal 21-33 record and well out of playoff contention. Chapman, in his third and final year with the Elks this season, was not about to exit Vince Genna Stadium for the last time in similar fashion.

And while the 2017 Elks (12-15 first half, 14-13 second half, 26-28 overall) missed the WCL postseason for the second straight year, Chapman said Monday he was pleased just to be in the playoff picture during the final weekend of the summer collegiate season.

“This summer was certainly an improvement from last summer,” said Chapman, a senior-to-be outfielder at Washington State who hit .306 with the Elks this season. “It was tough to go from the super-good team in 2015 to losing a lot last summer. It felt nice to bounce back and be in the playoff hunt. It keeps the season exciting all the way up to the end.”

The Elks, who finished third in the five-team South Division over the first half of the season and fourth in the second half, were in the postseason race with two games remaining but lost their final two games to finish out of the playoffs. Still, Chapman assured, the season was far from a disappointment.

“It was night and day,” Chapman said, comparing last summer with this season. “Last season, we were out of (the playoffs) with at least a week to go. You don’t have the same fire knowing that you’re out of it. It’s not as fun, because you don’t feel like you’re playing for anything. To have the playoffs hanging there like we did up until the last weekend (of the season), we knew that every game was important. The tension is so much more fun. … It felt like the playoffs for us because we had to win to stay in it.”

The Elks, who finished third in the South overall, won five of their first seven games to open the 2017 season but dropped seven of their next nine. They then lost four straight, and a three-game skid put them at 12-18 overall.

“It’s never fun to go through a slump,” Chapman reflected. “The nice thing about the league right now is the way they divide up the halves. We certainly had that stretch where we played pretty poorly and were losing a lot, but the fact that the second half restarts (with every team’s record at) 0-0, the fact that everyone has to start back at square one, that gave us a lot of confidence, knowing that no matter how bad we played up to that point, we could turn it around right there and have a fresh start.”

The Elks indeed rebounded at the start of the second half of the season, winning seven of eight, including a season-high six straight in mid-July to reach .500 at 19-19 overall. But Bend dropped five of its next six, and a loss to Cowlitz this past Saturday nixed the Elks’ hopes of reaching the postseason.

In his final summer with the Elks, Chapman highlighted the offense with team highs in hits (64), home runs (seven) and RBIs (34) while playing in 52 of the Elks’ 54 WCL games.

“It was huge that it was with the Elks,” Chapman said of enjoying a successful individual season. “I don’t know if it would have happened if I were anywhere else. … When you’re not adjusting to a new place, I could focus on baseball a lot. And everything just went smoothly. … Everything about Bend made the baseball part easier to focus on and easier to improve at.”

Also for the Elks this summer, University of Portland infielder Collin Runge, a Ridgeview High School grad, batted .315 with six doubles and three home runs and tied for the league lead in stolen bases with 17, while Northwestern infielder Charlie Maxwell hit .305 and tied for the WCL lead in triples with four. Central Oregon products George Mendazona, a Ridgeview grad and an Oregon State infielder, batted .327 in 28 games, and Cal Waterman, a Summit High graduate and a Washington State catcher, hit .266 in 41 games.

On the mound, Corban pitcher Kris Jackson tied for first in the league with six wins. He also posted a 2.43 ERA with 49 strikeouts over 63 innings pitched. Grant Larson, a Chico State pitcher, went 3-2 with a 2.79 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 481⁄3 innings.

“I think what they did in the second half, I wish we had another week,” said Alan Embree, the Elks’ first-year head coach. “Great group of boys. They worked hard. There were some fundamentals that needed to be worked out, but that comes with experience and what’s asked of those things. That’s what we were conditioning them for. By the end, our miscues were fewer, our timely hitting was better, and our pitching was better. They bought into our system and jelled pretty fast.”

As a team, the Elks ranked fifth in the WCL with a .274 batting average, but Bend hitters combined for the second-most strikeouts (435) in the league. The Elks pitching staff, meanwhile, issued the fewest walks (188) in the league but finished with the third-highest ERA (5.15). Those statistics, though, do not truly reflect the Bend pitching staff, according to Embree.

“By the end, they were very competitive,” Embree said of his hurlers. “There weren’t as many mistakes. They learned the difference between a quality strike and a quality pitch. They held runners better. It was next-man-up mentality. Our starters, you look at Kris Jackson, who was phenomenal. He would probably be the pitcher of the year (for the WCL). And then you look at Grant Larson. Over the last 30 days, they were heads above our team and pretty much the league.”

Attendance at 2017 Elks games actually dipped from last season, but not by much. According to the West Coast League website, the Elks were eighth in the 11-team league with a total of 28,603 fans over 27 home games. The team’s average of 1,059 was down from last year’s average of 1,105. (Victoria led the WCL in 2017 with an average of 1,899 fans per contest.)

Though the franchise attracted fewer fans than last summer, Elks director of marketing and sales Kelsie Marick said there is no concern about the drop.

“We’re fairly happy with right where our attendance is staying at that average,” Marick said, noting that the Elks compete with many other entertainment offerings in Central Oregon, such as concerts and outdoor outings. “But we would never say no to having more fans come to a game.”

Marick said the team’s average attendance this season was actually a bit higher, considering the WCL attendance figures do not reflect nonleague games, such as the Elks’ two-dollar Tuesday game last week against North Sound of Washington.

Marick added that few hiccups occurred this summer for the Elks, except for a beer cooler at Genna Stadium breaking down for a few days and a couple of hotel mishaps with visiting teams, such as booking issues.

Other than those obstacles, Marick said, “it went fairly smoothly. We had no major issues, which is always a good feeling by the time we’re done.”

Though the Elks missed the WCL postseason for the second straight year , Marick could not pinpoint a downside to the 2017 campaign — especially with the Elks team.

“Even though we were so close and we didn’t make the playoffs,” Marick said, “the team we put together this year was full of great guys and they were so cohesive as a team. Our host families (after the Elks’ final game on Sunday), a few of them were crying when they were hugging their players goodbye on the field. You know it’s a good year when the players connect that much with their host families and with the staff and this city.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, .