May 19, 2011
Current Oregon student and journalism major Kris Anderson spoke with 2010-11 freshman class about its first season in the Oregon uniform.
Kris will continue to provide features on the Oregon baseball team throughout the remainder of the 2011 season.
The Ducks are on the road this weekend, playing a three-game series
A Family of Freshmen
Kris Anderson, UO Journalism Student
With the Oregon Ducks battling for their postseason lives, players knew the importance of stealing their first Pac-10 Conference series win of the season from the then No. 23 Arizona Wildcats.
While there was still about a month-and-a-half left in the season, second baseman Danny Pulfer didn’t have a problem providing a label to the rubber match game of the series.
“It’s probably the biggest game of the year right now,” he said. “This is Omaha for us….”
It was a game tailor made for veteran leadership and experience. However, penciled into the starting lineup were five freshmen, including one player making his first conference start.
The game would also feature another first for 19-year-old Ryon Healy, as he slugged his first home run as a Duck, helping to propel his team to a 7-3 victory.
“It just shows how much these freshmen are capable of,” Pulfer said after the game.
The 2011 season has been a year partly defined by reliance in youth. Of the 53 games played this season, the Ducks have started at least four freshmen in 25 of those contests. And of the 35 players on the roster, 14 are freshmen.
Entering 2011, Oregon had the fifth ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to Baseball America, and headlining that class were Stefan Sabol, Aaron Jones, Brett Thomas and Healy, among others.
Only Jones has been an everyday starter throughout the year, but unfreshman-like play from Sabol, Thomas and Healy has made them regulars in the starting nine down the stretch.
“It just proves that the season is a definite grind,” Healy said. “I remember Ken Ravizza (sports psychologist) told us, ‘there will be a guy that doesn’t start at the beginning of this season, but will be there at the end of this season helping you guys through the playoffs.’”
With the added opportunities comes the added pressure of quickly becoming fluent in the nuances of what head coach George Horton calls “Duck Baseball.” Adapting to this system has been time consuming, and Healy says that it has made it difficult to find time to improve in other areas.
“This fall we had to learn all the bunt defenses and all the signs, and we were focusing on everything that is relevant to the game. It’s more about understanding the system and playing Duck baseball.”
It has been a challenge that all the freshmen have had to endure together, helping to create a bond between the program’s newcomers.
“We’re on a journey with each other for the next two or three years,” Sabol said. “I think there’s always going to be a bond, and we’re just trying to show what we can do.”
Some bonds came easier than others.
Before They Were Ducks
In high school, Sabol starred for the Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, Calif. A short 20-minute drive south along Interstate 5 is San Clemente, where Jones starred for San Clemente High School.
With both playing in the same league, their senior years were spent battling each other on the field and in the league’s statistical categories.
By the end of their final year, Sabol had finished first in the South Coast League in home runs; Jones finished second. He would edge out Sabol in slugging percentage as they earned another one-two finish. But neither was able to edge the other one out for the league’s highest honor. Sabol and Jones were both named co-MVP.
Out of high school, both players were selected in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. Sabol was the Atlanta Braves’ 17th-round selection, while Jones was selected in the 38th round by the Boston Red Sox. They opted to attend the University of Oregon, and upon arriving have quickly became good friends.
“We go from not really knowing much about each other, to living with each other for the school year,” Jones said of the two deciding to be roommates for the 2011-2012 school year.
Coincidentally, Jones, Sabol, Thomas and Healy played high school ball in the Southern California area.
Healy was a standout pitcher and position player for Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, while Thomas was a star two-sport athlete (baseball and football) at Poway High School in Poway.
But success in high school hasn’t guaranteed playing time during their first season as Ducks’. Sabol, Thomas and Healy spent time learning how to make their contributions from the bench, and embrace a role that none of them have experienced.
“It was definitely difficult,” Healy said of his time as a bench player, “but just understanding where you stand on the team and what your role is is probably the biggest thing you need to learn.”
Being able to capitalize on opportunities depends on how quickly the freshmen are able to acclimate to college baseball’s level of play. One of the biggest challenges for hitters is the quality of pitching they face. On an almost weekly basis, within their conference, the Ducks face Major League prospects.
“Over summer, I played college summer league and seeing consistently good pitchers everyday is an adjustment,” Healy said. “In high school you see maybe one good pitcher every other week. Here you see a quality pitcher everyday. It definitely brings up your tempo and your play. It makes you feel more challenged.”
From Freshmen to Veterans
As the 2011 season winds down, these young Ducks are shedding themselves of the freshman label. Sabol, Jones and Thomas routinely makeup the Ducks starting outfield, while Healy is juggled between first base and designated hitter. All four commonly bat in the heart of the batting order.
These are the parts they will most likely find themselves in throughout their time in the program. They have gone from understudies to the role of lead actors in less than a season and feel ready to become the face of Oregon baseball for the next couple of years.
“I think we have a bright future ahead of us,” Thomas says. “The juniors and seniors of this class have taught us what we need to know. They’ve led us in the right direction, and we need to see and embrace that.”
Next season will bring a new crop of freshmen that will look to these four and the rest of the team for leadership and advice. The continual development of the program will rely on this group of freshmen to become mentors. As Ravizza told this group at the start of the year, as a new season unfolds, there will be players asked to perform on a daily basis. But they can look to this group for how to embrace that responsibility.
“We need to teach them the right way to play the game,” Thomas says. “And we need to improve ourselves. We’ll never stop learning.”
A new season will bring new expectations. As freshmen, the contributions they made were considered significant. As sophomores, it will be expected. The Ducks believe they could make a trip to the College World Series in Omaha in the immediate future, hoping to win the program’s first championship.