by Steve Mims
When Springfield was shorthanded for Opening Night, the Drifters reached across the river to pull a couple players off the Emerald Challengers.
It can be tough for teams in the West Coast League to fill a roster when the season starts during the first week of June because many players are wrapping up their college season, finishing up academic work, or working out flight plans to Oregon.
When coach Tommy Richards realized his lineup was a little thin before the June 2nd opener against Port Angeles, Challengers coach Kenny Niles offered up a few players from his American Legion roster.
“Tommy said if they were ready, then let’s do it,” said Niles, who also serves as Director of Player Personnel for the Drifters. “If we do our job as coaches, they should be able to step in and play at that level so I felt comfortable endorsing them.”
Outfielder Dillon Butler, a Willamette High graduate who just completed his first year at Umpqua Community College, signed with the Drifters on Monday and less than 24 hours later, he singled and scored the walk-off run in a 4-3 win over Port Angeles.
“For Dillon to go from not knowing he was playing to being in the lineup and getting around on a good fastball and scoring the winning run, that was cool,” Niles said. “The day before he thought he’d be spending that night playing for the Challengers.”
The following night, Butler scored three runs in Springfield’s 18-2 win over the Lefties.
Catcher Nate Cook, a North Eugene grad who spent last year at College of Siskiyous, also played in Wednesday’s win over Port Angeles. Marist graduate Kaden Starr, who is headed to University of Portland in the fall, threw a clean inning in Springfield’s 8-2 win in the series finale.
All three returned to the Challengers when Springfield went on the road for a six-game road trip, but could be called back up to the Drifters if needed.
“They were all excited so it was really cool,” Niles said. “They were a bit apprehensive, not sure if they would get playing time, but Tommy said if he was going to bring them up then he would use them. They may have been nervous at first, but then it was ‘Let’s go for it’. They were excited when they came back to us because they got to see what it was like at the next level.”
The performances by Butler, Cook, and Starr continue a strong partnership between the Challengers and Drifters, both summer squads featuring some of the top amateur players in the area.
The Drifters feature three former Challengers including infielder Cooper Mullens, a Marist star headed to the University of Michigan who played Legion last summer. Pitchers Beau Barnett, a Churchill grad from Lane Community College, and Billy Dotson, a Junction City grad who plays at Clackamas Community College, played for the Challengers a few years back.
The Challengers feature mostly high school players and some with one year of college experience, while the Drifters feature high school seniors and any other player with college baseball eligibility.
In addition, the Challengers’ Single-A Legion team is Ole Athletics, sponsored by the company owned by Ike Olsson, a co-owner of the Drifters. When some of the Challengers moved up to play for the Drifters, Niles moved a couple of the Oles up to his Triple-A Challengers roster.
“There is a great symmetry between everyone with the Drifters and Challengers,” Niles said. “What we are looking for is a competitive spirit. If you have 40 guys on Springfield’s roster, only nine can play at a time. It is the same with the Challengers so competition breeds competition. If a guy like Kaden Starr goes up and throws lights out for the Drifters, we feel like we have guys who can take his spot.”