Milton-Freewater softball fans have had much to cheer about in recent years.
McLoughlin High School and the local youth program have generated that excitement because of statewide success.
In the Pioneers’ case, back-to-back state championships in 2014 and 2015.
Those aspiring to wear the Mac-Hi uniform have been competitive and representative at the district and state level.
But it wasn’t always so, according to former Mac-Hi and youth coach Barry Weis.
“When softball was in its infancy, like any sport in a new area, there was a lot of struggling going on,” Weis said. “It has to be built in the offseason.”
Parents, some with kids in sports programs, aided with the building, Weis said, including John Timmons, Ron Hodgen, Steve Irving, Chuck Valdez, Rick Trumbull, Bob Christian, Luane Stevens and Chip Ambler.
“Chip worked his magic at the younger level,” Weis said. “All these coaches and parents rolled their sleeves up, knew it wasn’t going to be easy to build the program, kept their eyes on the prize, and together, took a ground-floor program to be very competitive and eventually feared.”
Like Little League teams in 1993 at two levels that weren’t expected to be competitive, Weis said.
Ambler led a group of pre-teens to a district title and Weis coached 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds to a surprising triumph over La Grande in the third game of the district tournament.
Weis joined the Mac-Hi coaching staff as an assistant in the early 90s and witnessed the program’s first playoff appearance. He served as head coach from 1997-2008.
“Great kids, supportive parents,” he said. “We shared in quite a bit of success during that time.”
Weis credited coaches Christian, Corky York, Keith Truax and Marty Meisner for the program’s success.
The Pioneers won the 2000 GOL championship “with strong pitching from Kelly Haggerman,” Weis said.
Mac-Hi lost in the state quarterfinals to Tillamook.
“It was a gutsy performance by all our kids,” he said. “We lost by one run.”
The 2000s were highlighted by league titles and all-state honors, Weis said.
Haggerman was voted first-team all-state and was the 2000 GOL Player of the Year, Weis said.
Weis was the GOL’s all-state representative from 2000-08.
“I got to know coaches throughout the state and had the opportunity to help them find colleges for some of their players — some of which attended Walla Walla Community College,” Weis said.
Weis and Pat Didion experienced good fortune in 2004 — “taking a group of summer kids to a state tournament,” he said.
“After winning that — behind strong pitching from Amber Knight and Amanda Arnzen, and strong hitting throughout the lineup — we made it to the semifinals in the Divisional tournament,” Weis said.
That ball club — which also featured Kelsie Didion, Kim Brown, Lindsey Croghan and Megan Kessler — coupled with “a great group of parents grew up to be a powerhouse in the Greater Oregon League,” Weis said.
Didion, Brown, Croghan and Kessler achieved all-state honors while at Mac-Hi, and Knight was the 2008 league player of the year, Weis said.
The Pioneers made a playoff appearance in 2006 and were led by GOL Player of the Year — pitcher Ranzy York — and second-team all-state choice Katie Brown, Weis said.
A quarterfinal victory over Valley Catholic that resulted in a semifinal berth that season is one that is happily stored in the former coach’s memory bank.
“It was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh,” Weis said. “With two outs and two strikes, in a game with no errors, Catherine Jones hit a rise ball — off a pitcher with all-state honors — over the center field fence to end the game.
“It was one of the best fast-pitch games I’ve ever seen,” Weis said. “Ranzy pitched the game of her life.”
Weis, looking back, defined this time frame as “some of the richest years of my life,” and tipped his cap to the athletes and parents.
“I was able to see several kids move into colleges with scholarship help and was invited to many weddings,” Weis said. “Those are things you can’t put a price on.”