[Editor’s note: The idea behind “Alphabet Stories” is to write one noteworthy athletics-related story about each OSAA-member school. We started with Adrian HS on Sept.18. Today’s story, more than four months later, is about Churchill High School. The goal will be to write two per week. While we will be relying upon athletic directors to furnish story ideas, anyone may offer suggestions by emailing [email protected]]
Is there such a thing as having good fortune and bad timing concurrently?
Ask Churchill head baseball coach Kenny Niles.
COVID-19 is almost certain to truncate the 2021 season, which is slated to begin April 12 and run for six weeks. There likely won’t be state championships conducted; rather, a “culminating week” in form and format still to be determined.
All of this is too bad for Churchill, which would have been the clear 5A favorites in a normal year. That’s because the Lancers boast five senior pitchers with college-caliber arms.
“We’ve had good pitching staffs in the past, but this is as good as we’ve been,” Niles said. “I wish we had them in a traditional year.”
Niles, 46, has been a high school baseball coach for 22 years, the last eight at Churchill. In the four years before he arrived from Sheldon, the Lancers failed to make the 5A state playoffs. Niles turned things around when he arrived in 2014. Churchill has been in the playoffs every year during his tenure, except for the canceled 2020 season. In his seven years, the Lancers have reached the quarterfinals once, the semifinals twice and, in 2017, won their only state championship.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Churchill had the 5A Pitcher of the Year. And, in 2017, the team’s No. 2 hurler, Jose Chavez, tossed a complete-game four-hitter in the state championship game to defeat Crater, 5-1.
Niles knows winning and he knows pitching. So, when he says, “I would lobby for this season to play out because if it’s about pitching and defense I would like our chances,” you’d better believe him.
Carson Lydon and Cho Tofte, two players committed to the University of Oregon, will anchor the starting rotation.
Lydon is one of the best hitters in the state, and will probably play first or in the outfield for the Ducks, but the southpaw also has been throwing for Churchill since his freshman year. His fastball reaches the high 80s and he would have been the staff ace last year as a junior.
“He’s from a baseball family,” Niles said. “He knows the game really well. He’s been pitching since he was young. He knows how to get people out.”
Tofte is a tall righthander with a three-pitch mix and a fastball that currently tops out in the low 90s. He hasn’t pitched a lot of varsity innings for Churchill but has huge upside.
“He has always had a live arm,” Niles said. “When he was younger, he had no idea where it was going. He has learned how to pitch.”
Bryson Estrella and Carson Jones are two other talented righties who have been in the program for years. Niles said that the duo, who are getting junior college looks, could be the No. 1 starters on most staffs.
“Most years, we’d be thrilled to have them at the front of the rotation,” he added.
In 2021, Estrella and Jones will probably have to settle for mop up innings in a shortened season. In addition to Lydon and Tofte, Churchill had a Division I arm move in from Indiana. Isaac Evaniew was twice All-Conference for North Central HS before his father’s transfer brought him to Oregon last month. Niles describes his new starter, who stands 6-2 and weighs 195 pounds, as a Player of the Year-type candidate with a really high ceiling.
“He throws 89 with a good breaking ball,” Niles said. “He’s super muscular and ready to make some jumps in his game.”
Niles said he learned about Evaniew coming to Churchill from college coaches. Within minutes of Evaniew’s announcement, on social media, of his move, Niles received texts from area college baseball coaches who knew about him, telling Niles just how good he was.
Having three Division I pitchers creates a quandary for Niles: whom to tab as the team’s No. 1 starter. Nile admits that it’s a nice problem to have.
But it would be even nicer in a traditional year.