The North Coast Merchants are having their usual summer softball success, at every level.
The club that provides a training ground for players in Clatsop County has teams at four different levels this summer, as softballers from grade school through high school work to develop their skills in the offseason.
North Coast Merchant teams feature players from Astoria, Warrenton, Knappa and Ilwaco (Seaside has its own summer program for youth athletes).
Coached by Ian O’Brien, the Merchants’ 12-and-under team is 25-9 overall this season, with two tournament victories. They have also placed second in four events, and finished third in another. The Merchants have earned a trophy in every tournament they have been a part of in 2019.
At a recent tourney in Seaside, the Merchants played five games over a weekend, and gave up just five runs.
“We beat two teams that had beaten us in championship games prior to that, which was big,” O’Brien said. “We’ve won two tournaments, and medaled in everything.”
Most of the team’s tournaments are in Newberg, West Linn or Wilsonville.
“Most of our games are in the valley,” he said. “It’s been a good year for our 12s.”
The Merchants also have teams for 10-and-under, 14-and-under and 16-and-under players.
“Our 10s are young — they’re more 8 and 9, and just a couple who are 10,” he said. “It’s just good to have teams at 10, 12, 14 and 16, as far as the program is concerned.”
Warrenton High School coach Staci Miethe coaches the 16s, and has coached Merchant teams for years at other levels. As for his own team, O’Brien’s 12U squad has 14 players.
“Most are from Warrenton, with one from Astoria, four from Knappa and two from Ilwaco,” he said. “At the plate, our two ‘bombers,’ kids who hit with lots of power, are Maddie Wilkin (from Ilwaco) and Taeja Tuimato (Astoria). Maddie also pitches and plays third base, and Taeja catches. She’s solid behind the dish.”
O’Brien’s two main pitchers are Wilkin and Taylor Pass, from Knappa.
“They’re our two main go-tos,” he said. “Taylor Pass has been really solid, real consistent. Taylor has real good control, and Maddie brings more heat. She can throw with a lot of power.”
In the infield, “London O’Brien (shortstop, third base and coach’s daughter) has a solid glove and does a great job in the field,” he said. “Kendall Jackson is a Knappa girl who’s done a good job at second base. Lily Simpson plays first base, and has had some great weekends at the plate.”
In the outfield, “Jaime Annat plays center field, and she’s just a ball hawk,” O’Brien said. “She reminds me of Kenz (Ramsey, Warrenton High School centerfielder) in some ways. She tracks the ball really well. She’s made some dynamite catches and has a strong arm.”
“The main reason why we coach is to see the development of the kids over the years,” said O’Brien, who is also the athletic director and head football coach at Warrenton High School. “If you look at where we were last year, the progression that they’ve made is really fun to see.
“I like it because a lot of these kids will play each other (in high school), and although they go to different schools now, they’ve really bonded well. They’re a fun group of kids that really like each other.”
Helping O’Brien with coaching duties are Mike Pass, Mark Simpson and Frank Tuimato.
“The players have become good friends, and our hope as coaches is that as they start competing against each other in high school, those friendships will continue.”
The battle for players
In recent years, athletes are pulled in all sorts of directions once the summer hits.
Boys have summer baseball leagues, which are giving way to basketball and football camps. Girls have volleyball and basketball games — but very few opportunities locally for high school-age softball players in the summer.
“Basketball dominates everything,” O’Brien said. “When you look at girls’ athletics in the summer, as far as high school, basketball dominates and controls most of their summer.”
Portland-area players, meanwhile, continue with softball after the spring season ends.
“A lot them play on the club teams in the area. When I was at Lakeridge, we’d have five or six girls playing on different clubs and organizations,” said O’Brien, who served as the athletic director at Lakeridge High School before returning to Warrenton.
And even if Astoria, Seaside, Warrenton and Knappa combined their efforts, it would be hard to field a summer team.
“You take the size of our communities and add it all up, we can’t even touch Tigard or Tualatin,” O’Brien said. “People will tell me, ‘you guys are pulling from quite a few different towns,’ but in all reality, they have 25,000 or 30,000 more people than we do.”
Still, “our hope and our vision, from the four of us coaches, we want to continue to coach these kids all the way through high school,” he said. “Our fundamental goal with the Merchants is to have the girls continue to play softball. It’s a competitive team, and there’s weekends or days when not every kid gets to play, because it is a competitive team. But that’s also going to be a reality of when they get to high school.
“Just because they’re a stud on a 12U team, doesn’t mean they’re going to be a stud on their high school team their freshman year. We try to instill those values and that work ethic, so when they get to the high school level, they’re ready for a coach who’s intense and has high expectations.”
In addition to the players already mentioned, the Merchants’ 12U team includes Aryana Adams, Kendall Allen, Savannah Bigelow, MaKenzie Graff, Jasmine Horton, Aubrey Rusinovich and Lena Wakefield.
“They’ve had some success, and they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished,” O’Brien said. “The outlook for our communities, just based off our 12U team, the coaches for the high school teams should be excited about what’s coming up for them.”