I’ve reported on high school sports in Eastern Oregon for a little less than two months, roughly two-thirds of the fall sports season. In that time, I’ve watched countless athletes illuminate after a victory on the pitch. Others have slumped to the turf after a hard-fought loss. Still others were left standing emotionless on the court, the moment of jubilation or grief having not quite settled.
The young athletes that I’ve talked with will always register with these specific sports for me because that’s where we met first. When I hear the name Crystal Schmidt, my mind will forever zip to Hermiston volleyball — even though she’s told me track is really her best sport. Bryan Beard makes me think Pendleton tight end long before basketball center — even though I’m told he’s much more dominant on the court.
That line blurred a bit in recent weeks as schools pack in their fall sports season and the basketball hoops, wrestling mats and swim caps come out of storage. Because unlike the athletes that I’ve painted in my head, the real ones that go to these schools don’t go into hibernation with winter. They just change jerseys.
No better example have I found than the Hermiston volleyball/basketball team. There’s enough spikers on the Bulldogs basketball squad to suit a starting lineup — and that’s just the seniors. The varsity roster is full of names I’m already familiar with — which I’ll appreciate when I’m trying to track them down in the chaos and traffic that follows sporting events. I noticed the trend at other schools as well and started to believe that that’s just life as a high school athlete.
But Becky Wadekamper quickly corrected me — after letting me know I’ll run into all the same names when softball season starts in the spring. When her Hermiston team was at the state tournament this month, their unity became more evident.
“I told them, ‘Look across at the other teams and tell me how many players you recognize,’ ” the coach said. “ ‘How many of them play together on the basketball team, the softball team?’ ”
The answer was overwhelmingly few.
The trend showed up again in the Helix school system where boys’ basketball coach Luke Hegdal has had a heck of a time practicing because so many of his players are involved in Weston-McEwen’s playoff run.
“I’m feeling a little behind the gun with half our team still playing football,” the first-year coach half-joked.
It’s an interesting nugget that has caught my attention this fall, but also a testament to the athletic ability of these high schoolers and the communities in Eastern Oregon. My coaching contacts insist that while the track exists elsewhere, it’s far more common among the close-knit small communities in the area.
It’s a friendly change from what I experienced covering high school sports in Montana and Ohio.
AJ Mazzolini is a sports writer for the East Oregonian. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.