Junior Danny Wideman's first-inning grand slam erased a 3-0 Sunset lead in West Linn's 8-4 win (Jon Olson)
Junior Danny Wideman's first-inning grand slam erased a 3-0 Sunset lead in West Linn's 8-4 win (Jon Olson)

KEIZER – West Linn spotted Sunset three runs after three batters then erupted for eight of its own over the first two innings to capture an unprecedented third straight 6A title Saturday afternoon at the OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union State Baseball Championships at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.

When West Linn blanked Jesuit last year, 2-0, to capture its second straight 6A title, the Lions became the first school in the largest classification to repeat in more than 50 years. Winning a third straight title on Saturday, to join Drain (now North Douglas) as the only schools ever to threepeat, is an entirely new level of dominance.

“It's unreal,” said senior catcher Ryan VandenBrink, a four-year starter. “After the last play I look around and realize it’s the last out in the seventh inning. It’s an incredible feeling. You cannot describe it.”

“This is our dream,” added senior pitcher Gabe Howard, who also was on the field for all three championship games. “From the start of the season we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could get that third one. We had a target on our back the entire year and we did it.”

The game did not start ideally for a West Linn repeat. The Lions, who pitched shutouts in 2022 and 2023, found themselves down by one after two batters and by three after three. Junior Kruz Schoolcraft, arguably the most dominant player in the state this year; led off the game by taking a Howard fastball and lashing it into right center for a hit. Senior Max Ellerbrook followed with a triple to the same spot but deeper to score Schoolcraft. Catcher Dakota Chun punctuated Sunset’s three-run first with a deep home run over the right field fence. Seats were not even warm and the Apollos had a 3-0 lead!

Howard, an Oregon signee in his first appearance on the mound in a state final, said that yielding the three early runs did not faze him.

“I didn’t mind about those,” he explained. “It happens. What can you do about it? Can’t change it. Just have to have a clear mind every inning. 0-0 ball game. Go fight.”

Howard set the next three Sunset batters down in order to get out of the first without further damage, then led off the bottom of the first with a single through the left side off of Sunset starter Parker Raubuch.

“I walked into this game thinking I needed a first hit to get the dugout going and create good mojo for the team,” Howard said.

A hit batter and walk followed, loading the bases with no out for junior cleanup batter Danny Wideman. He got a 3-1 fastball on the inner half from Raubuch and did not miss.

“I tried to put on the best swing I could,” the Oregon commit said. “I knew I could do some damage. It was a line drive. I didn’t think it was going to get out but I knew it was pretty deep.”

Wideman sprinted around first and didn’t see the ball creep over the left field fence for a grand slam that gave West Linn a 4-3 lead.

“I just heard the crowd going crazy,” he said. “It was definitely a great moment I’ll remember forever.”

“He always rises to the occasion,” said West Linn head coach Joe Monahan. “Every time there’s a big game he’s the guy.”

Monahan said that while being down 3-0 to start wasn’t ideal, he figured, with the wind blowing out, that runs could be had.

“We took a pretty good shot in that first inning, but the wind was blowing out pretty good,” he explained. “It was going to take velocity off of the pitchers. I figured we’d respond in the first couple of innings to get back in it and it happened sooner than I expected.”

Howard got his first strike out of the game and a diving grab in right from Ethan Simshauser to set Sunset (28-3) down in order in the second, then got hit by pitch in the bottom of the frame, setting up VandenBrink to do damage with two on and two outs. The senior drove a 1-2 fastball off the fence in right for a triple, scoring DH Carson Boyer, who had walked; and Howard. Sunset RF Elijah Torgerson almost made a spectacular, inning-ending catch but the ball ticked off of his glove as he banged into the fence.

The hit was especially meaningful for VandenBrink, arguably the best player in West Linn history; as he had struggled at the plate in the previous two state championship games.

“It felt good off the bat and I watched it fly,” VandenBrink said. “The past couple of years I’ve struggled. I came into this game knowing that I’m not. Especially as a senior, I knew I needed to be there for my guys and I was.”

“That was big because it lifted our club,” Monahan said.

Wideman followed with a single through the hole to plate VandenBrink. Junior Baron Naone, a big time football prospect; capped the four-run rally with two outs by hitting an RBI double inches from the top of the center field fence 405 feet away.  West Linn led 8-3 on five hits, two walks and two hit batsmen.

Noted Sunset head coach John Barnes: “Walks. Hit batsmen. Free bases. Good teams take advantage of free bases. It was a tale of two innings. A good team is going to take advantage of mistakes and they did that.”

Down 8-3, Sunset had five more innings to cut into West Linn’s lead. The Apollos, however, could not solve Howard. After Chun’s first-inning home run, the hard-throwing Howard set down 18 batters in a row, with six strike outs.

The lead was still 8-3 after six thanks to the tremendous work in relief by Sunset junior Will Slater. The right hander came on with two out in the bottom of the second and limited West Linn to one hit and no runs the rest of the way.

Howard’s consecutive outs streak came to an end one pitch into the seventh, when Maddox Montoya drilled a pitch deep over the fence in left. One out later, Cole Sauter reached on a pop fly single that just eluded SS Mitch Rowe’s grasp, giving Sunset hope for a rally. West Linn has Three Rivers League Pitcher of the Year Blake Crawford, who was available for 25 pitches after shutting out Jesuit in the semifinals on Tuesday, warm in the pen, but Monahan elected to stick with Howard. He struck out the next batter then watched as a Sunset batter, attempting to bunt, ran into the ball in the field of play for the final out of the season.

“Gabe set the tone,” Monahan said. “Other than that one pitch in the seventh he was lights out. Gabe is a gamer. I’ve seen him respond like that before. He’s never had more than one bad inning in a game before. It was the same way today.”

Sunset finished the game with just five hits off of Howard. He walked none.

“Tip your hat to Gabe Howard; he’s really good,” Barnes said. “Joe’s done an amazing job over there. Tip my hat to all of them, but I’m so proud of my guys. Our kids played hard and had a helluva season.”

Barnes said that with several key players returning, he hoped his team could make it back in 2025.

“Our seniors created something special, but we have all of our pitching back,” Barnes explained. “If we find some spots to fill, we’re really excited about the future.”

Wideman thinks that West Linn, which finished the year 28-4 and on a 19-game winning streak; also could get back to the championship game despite graduating five everyday players and its two top pitcher.

“We have experience,” he explained. “Our team is so talented and our coaches are great.”

Monahan said that this win was just business as usual for his group, which looked at the game as an opportunity to succeed rather than an obstacle to overcome.

“We weren’t tight,” he said. “It’s kind of the way we are. The kids work hard; pick each other up. I never felt any tightness in this team at any point the last three years.”