Grant Lucas

PRINEVILLE —

Heath Pickhardt plays for Prineville. That’s his drive.

He was born and raised in the area, his family resides in nearby Powell Butte. He grew up idolizing the baseball players wearing Crook County High blue and gold, “thinking they were legends,” Pickhardt recalls. He desperately wanted to reach that status.

A senior catcher for the Cowboys who has committed to play for the University of Oregon next year, Pickhardt, it is safe to say, has fulfilled his goal. One indication is to see the 6-foot-1, 185-pound teen minutes after a game in Prineville, with a cluster of adoring kids scrambling to score his autograph.

Pick, as he is known to his teammates, does not care about personal stats. He wants the win. He wants a future. And he wants to have a positive influence on the future.

He speaks more about the community and young kids than he does of himself. So it is no surprise that the senior is a member of his high school’s Link Crew, a program through which he and other upperclassmen mentor freshmen. And it is no shock that Pickhardt finds joy in volunteering at Crook County and Bend Elks baseball camps. After all, not long ago, he was part of that gaggle of starry-eyed kids.

“Being in that place (as an upperclassman), I want the younger kids to look at us in that way,” Pickhardt says. “It’s always fun to see younger guys running around and talking to me after the game.”

This is the place Pickhardt has longed to reach. He grew up playing the mainstream sports: football, basketball, baseball. Yet by his freshman year, he was no longer lacing up his high-tops. A knee injury cut short his junior football season, and he decided to leave the gridiron behind.

Baseball had always been Pickhardt’s favorite sport, he says. Even off the diamond, he would rarely be seen without a baseball hat.

“I feel lost without one, kind of,” he laughs.

In eighth grade, he committed himself to becoming a catcher.

“I’ve always been flexible,” Pickhardt says. “It was a pretty easy adjustment. I was always comfortable in a squat.”

He was a late bloomer, at least physically. Currently a lean but sinewy player, Pickhardt had been tall and gangly growing up. Just before high school, however, Pick found his calling.

During a time when he enjoyed a quick growth spurt, Pickhardt began working out in Bend with Ryan Jordan, who had been an all-state catcher at Bend High in 2004. Jordan was “built a lot like me,” Pickhardt says. “We were able to relate in that way.” Jordan taught Pick the catching trade as the young backstop trained alongside blossoming Central Oregon stars Joey Morgan and Cal Waterman, who were all-state players at Sisters and Summit, respectively. Morgan (University of Washington) and Waterman (Washington State) went on to play in Pac-12 programs, as Pickhardt expects to do at Oregon, and Morgan was a third-round pick by the Detroit Tigers in last year’s Major League Baseball draft.

“I’ve always been close with both those guys,” Pickhardt says of Morgan and Waterman. “They’ve taught me a bunch. To see that they can do it, it gives me motivation.”

Pickhardt became a baseball-only player this year, opting out of football in the fall to play for Portland-based Northwest Elite, an instructional baseball program with which he competed against colleges on weekends. It was the latest step toward a Pac-12 career for Pickhardt, who had already made great strides as a player, particularly with the bat. After hitting below .200 with the Crook County varsity as a sophomore, he raised his batting averaging more than 300 points as a junior, to .508.

“I started to realize that baseball was really what I wanted to do,” says Pickhardt, who has played the past two summers with the Bend Bucks, a team composed of college and high school players that operates as a developmental arm of the West Coast League’s Bend Elks. “I got focused and started working harder. I played varsity all four years, so it was fun to be the underclassman and having those upperclassmen really pushing me.”

Pickhardt has “come a long ways,” according to sixth-year Cowboys coach Frank Martinez. The senior frequently demonstrates his baseball savvy and knowledge, to the point that Pickhardt proposes game plans to the coaches during games. He calls the pitches, says Martinez, who has come to believe that Pickhardt, who also pitches and has a fastball clocked in the high 80s, has a running mental chart on opposing batters and knows exactly how the defense should play them. As a result, the three-time all-Tri-Valley Conference catcher, who was voted to the Class 4A all-state second team last season, has helped Crook County become a contender for the TVC title this season.

“They have a lot of confidence with him in the lineup,” Martinez says of the Cowboys. “Just his body language. They look up to him. When he’s gone, that’s big shoes to fill behind the plate. An all-league catcher three years in a row, hopefully it pans out for him again this year.”

“It’s helping us become a better team as a whole,” adds pitcher Kyle Knudtson, one of seven sophomores on Crook County’s roster. “He’s pretty good at what he does. Him being successful really helps the other guys on the team. It makes me feel like I don’t have to try super hard. I know that if I mess up, he has my back. Just knowing that he can help me out if I’m making a mistake is really relieving and makes it less stressful when I’m on the mound.”

Certainly Pickhardt, a team captain alongside Josh Norris and Jacob Kasberger, knows how to keep things light. (During a rest stop on the team’s recent road trip to Molalla, for example, he instigated a snowball fight.) But the senior is committed to ending his high school career on a high note.

Last year, Crook County became the first softball team from Central Oregon ever to reach the state championship game, ultimately falling in the 4A final. Pickhardt was among the crowd for a few of those state playoff games, and while he was happy for the Cowgirls, he admits experiencing a twinge of jealousy.

“I wanted to be better and do what they did,” Pickhardt says. “It was definitely motivation. If they can do it, we can do it.”

Pickhardt has led a Crook County baseball resurgence this season. The Cowboys (4-3 TVC, 8-6 overall) are third in the conference standings and have averaged the third-most runs per game in 4A at nearly 10 per contest after scoring barely half that last year. Crook County is on track to make its first appearance in the state playoffs since 2004. All the while Pickhardt has set the tone, not just with his slick maneuvering and pitch-calling behind the plate and with his stellar hitting, but also with his work ethic.

“He basically makes us feel like, since there’s a kid from Crook County going (NCAA) DI, to something bigger than a small town makes us feel like we can do the same if we keep pushing at it,” Knudtson says. “All it takes is hard work.”

That is what Pickhardt has always wanted: to leave a lasting influence for younger players — and to represent Crook County well.

“I want to make my hometown proud,” he says. “Just do whatever it takes. For them. Not necessarily for me.”

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

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The headline in an earlier online version misstated Pickhardt’s hometown. The Bulletin regrets the error.

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