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4A BASEBALL: Surging Central baseball team is playoff-ready

INDEPENDENCE -- With the bases loaded and the pressure high, Kelton Chapman slowly stepped up to the plate, bat ready.

Central’s Kelton Chapman, far left, is swarmed by teammates after he hit a walk-off grand slam in a win over Stayton April 24.

Photo by Nicole Watkins

Central’s Kelton Chapman, far left, is swarmed by teammates after he hit a walk-off grand slam in a win over Stayton April 24.

May 01, 2013

INDEPENDENCE -- With the bases loaded and the pressure high, Kelton Chapman slowly stepped up to the plate, bat ready.

But before Stayton's Josh Lindlemann could fire the Central senior a ball in the April 24 Oregon West Conference matchup, Chapman took off down the third base line to talk the situation over with second-year Central head coach Zach Miller.

When the umpire immediately raised his hands in surprise, though, it was apparent that Chapman didn't make much of an effort to actually call a timeout.

For a guy that hadn't played baseball since the eighth grade, being a bit rusty on the rules was to be expected.

"When he came out with his swing, it was tough to look at at first," Miller said of Chapman.

"I just kept telling him, it's going to be a project."

So when Chapman took an inside fastball and belted it over the left field wall for a walk-off grand slam in Central's five-inning, 15-3 victory, it -- much like the Panthers' quick rise to relevance on the diamond -- was a bit of a surprise.

Even Chapman didn't see it coming.

"In my mind I was kind of joking with myself that it would be funny if I hit a granny here, but I didn't expect that," he said.

After finishing the past six seasons without a playoff berth, you might say that the rest of the state didn't expect to see Central (13-6, 6-4) climbing the Oregon School Activities Association power rankings as one of Class 4A's best teams.

Central’s Joe Leon prepares to take a swing in the Panthers’ 15-3 OWC win over Stayton April 24.

Photo by Nicole Watkins

Central’s Joe Leon prepares to take a swing in the Panthers’ 15-3 OWC win over Stayton April 24.

Despite a tough, 6-4 extra-inning loss to Newport Friday, Central rebounded with an 8-4 victory over the Cubs Monday, led by home runs from Wes Riddell, Josh Simons and Branden Cutsforth.

Central is now ranked No. 5 in the power rankings and stands third in an OWC that features the Cubs (13-4), Philomath (14-5) and Cascade (14-7), all teams ranked in the OSAA's top 10.

So how has Central turned around a program that went 9-12 a season ago?

"Well, we've come a long way," senior shortstop David Powell said after the win over Stayton, a game where he recorded his second home run of not just the week -- he had one April 15 in a tough 5-4 loss to the Eagles -- but of his high school career.

"We're working hard every day. Coach has helped out a lot -- he's turned it around. Last year was a building year and this year it's really starting to come together."

After sustaining what was a disappointing loss to Stayton April 15 -- the Eagles scored the winning runs in the bottom of the seventh -- Central came out firing in the rematch, as Powell's blast over the left-field fence in the second inning gave Central a 5-0 lead it wouldn't give up.

Tallan would finish 2 for 3 with a double and two RBI and Powell would reach base in all four of his at-bats, getting on via an error, a home run, being hit by a pitch and a walk.

Cutsforth added two singles and Joe Leon (RBI) and Riddell each had a hit apiece for Central.

Miller chuckled a bit when asked what differences he sees in a squad that around this time last year was just hoping for a shot to compete in a play-in game.

This year, hosting a playoff game is the No. 1 goal.

"They know the baseball that we want to play, they've bought into the system a little bit and it's showing in the way that we're playing," Miller said.

For a program that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2006, winning has finally become not just a hope, but an expectation.

"It's been a while since it's been expected at Central to win, but you feel it more when you lose now," Powell said. "Playoffs are the major goal. To get there and to go as far as we can."

NEXT GAMES

Central at Philomath

When: Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.

Central at Cascade

When: Friday, 4:30 p.m.

Taft at Central

When: Monday, 4:30 p.m.

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