Not-so-new coach takes over Pioneers baseball team

Although Michael Garcia is new to the Mac-Hi baseball scene, he's coached in town for 16 years.

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MILTON-FREEWATER - At Mac-Hi, everything old is new again - in a way of speaking.

Michael Garcia has taken over the Pioneers' baseball team in the 2011 season, and though Garcia is new to black and red, he's not a new face to many of the kids.

Garcia has coached baseball in Milton-Freewater for 16 years, beginning when his oldest son was in T-ball and continuing the trend as his son grew. Most recently, he started and coached the Milton-Freewater Blazers summer league team, which included many Pioneers returning to this year's roster.

"It was kind of easy to get right into the swing of things, as far as what I knew they were capable of doing," Garcia said of the team. "They already knew what the expectations were and what my philosophy was, so even though it's my first year at Mac-Hi, it's not something that was entirely new to me."

Garcia coached 52 games with the Blazers last summer, or the equivalent of two high school seasons.

And for Garcia, the focus is on the players.

"I want to see these kids have some success, because every team deserves that, and it's good for the community," he said. "It's been a long time since the high school baseball team has had a good season, and we're hoping this is the year we can turn things around."

The Pioneers open their 2011 season hosting Umatilla on Wednesday, then head to the Grant Union Tournament this weekend.

A trio of players will rotate on the mound, with sophomore Dylan Shuler leading the charge.

Shuler moved up from the junior varsity last year after playing with the Blazers.

Sophomore Jordan Lienbach and junior Patrick Sheets will rotate at second base and shortstop, and also see time on the mound.

"Those three will always be in the rotation somehow," Garcia said.

Lienbach is currently battling an injury, but should be ready when the season gets going, and Sheets is a returning varsity player who was a utility player last year.

Senior Alex Ortiz and junior Troy Kessler will split time at third base, and both could see some time on the mound.

"We've really been working with the pitchers since last spring," Garcia said. "We realized we need to be as deep as we can with them in the pitching rotation."

Seniors Dylan Garcia and Derek Richwine are also being prepped to pitch, he said.

Willie McCoy, a junior who played JV ball last year, will catch for the Pioneers. He'll also be an important at-bat, Garcia said.

Junior Kevin Cuellar, a returning varsity player, will be at first. He received honorable mention in the Greater Oregon League last season.

"Defensively, he's super-solid," Garcia said. "He's got a knack for coming up at the ball and making good defensive plays."

Junior Jake Morris will cover centerfield for the Pioneers. He was injured last season and didn't play, but he's working back into shape, Garcia said. He can also catch when he's needed.

"He's got an exceptional arm and a really good read on the ball," Garcia said.

At right field is senior Dylan Garcia, who's been playing with Dad Michael since his youth. He could also pitch, but will mostly be in outfield, the coach said.

Senior Enrique Hernandez will see action in left field. Junior Taylor Hodgen was injured last season but returns to varsity and is able to play any field position, Garcia said.

Sophomores Saul Ortiz and Jose Aguilar will also play some varsity ball, although their positions aren't hammered out yet, and Tavis Hodgen, the starting JV catcher, could swing up to catcher or shortstop for the varsity team.

With a solid team of players familiar with each other and their coach, Garcia has high expectations this season.

"Our goal is to win the GOL, and we believe we're better than Ontario and La Grande," he said. "We played their summer leagues last summer and we were able to beat both of them. When we put things down on paper, we come out ahead of both teams, and that's what I told our young men. We expect to win."

He sees Baker as the biggest competition in the GOL.

"They've got a large group of instructors that are always at a high skill level," he said. "That's why they're so good every year and we're hoping we match up well with them. Baker is our biggest competition. ... Not that we look past Ontario and La Grande, but we expect to win against them."

The Pioneers open their league season in April and play the bulk of their games against nonleague foes.

The assistant and JV coaches supporting Garcia and the team also have experience, both with Mac-Hi and the Blazers.

"We've got a good foundation with coaching and a great support group in parents," he said. "Now we need to continue to work with the players we have and continue motivating them to be more effective."

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