Bend Bulletin sports reporter Grant Lucas:
Last season, after the Bend Elks finished the 2012 summer campaign with a record of 24-30 and out of the West Coast League playoffs for the first times since 2007, team owner and general manager Jim Richards met with then-interim head coach Joe Dominiak.
The recruiting process for the 2013 season was about to begin, and Richards and Dominiak needed to set certain objectives to avoid repeating a disappointing season.
The Elks had gone 6-20 on the road in 2012, a record that Richards knew was not acceptable.
“What are the root causes of why we didn’t play well on the road?" Richards recalls asking during the postseason meeting. “Same guys, same game, same distance between first and second (base). How we travel, who we travel with — those were important issues."
Another issue was how the Elks selected their players. Richards says calls from college coaches were already pouring in about Bend’s 2013 roster, and it was only August. Sensing that a change was in order, Richards did something that had not been done in his team’s first 13 seasons: The recruiting reins were passed from Richards to Dominiak, who was named the Elks’ head coach for 2013.
What resulted in 2013 was a 12-6 start, most wins in the WCL three weeks into the season.
“I asked Jim, ‘What do you want? What would you want help with?’ " recalls Dominiak, an 18-year collegiate coaching veteran who this past spring served as head baseball coach at Madras High School and recently was named new head coach at Bend’s Mountain View High. “When he mentioned recruiting, I just smiled, like, ‘Good.’ "
By October, virtually all of Bend’s 2013 roster was complete, and it became the most eclectic group of players Richards had seen as the front man of the Elks.
Players from as nearby as Oregon State (Corvallis) and George Fox (Newberg) universities would be joined in the Elks’ clubhouse by those coming in from as far as Arkansas State and Abilene Christian (Texas) University. Players from Seattle University would mix with the Elks’ first-ever recruits from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
While the recruiting responsibilities have changed hands, the approach did not deviate. Richards points out that acquiring players is a relationship-driven process. He has contacts with coaches at Creighton and Arizona State who were former coaches with Washington State, for example. If either of them says they have a guy who could produce for the Elks while developing as a player, Richards will trust those coaches enough to check out the prospect’s statistics and consider the player as a future Elk.
It is about that trust, Richards says, and personal relationship. And Dominiak agrees.
“A lot of the coaches that I recruited kids from all know me and know what I’m like," Dominiak says. “So they tried to match my personality with the kids’, and it really has blossomed."
What began with players from about 80 schools, by Richards’ estimation — upward of 200 prospects — was boiled down to fewer than 40 players, a roster that reaches more than 1,700 miles east of Central Oregon.
As for the players who in many cases traveled from far regions of the country to take the field in the Pacific Northwest, not much persuasion was needed.
Take Abilene Christian’s Seth Spivey, for example. His assistant coach, Elliott Cribby — who played for the West Coast League’s Wenatchee (Wash.) AppleSox for several years — suggested that the senior-to-be consider playing in the WCL, one of the nation’s more highly regarded summer collegiate baseball leagues.
“I did some research on it (the WCL) after he told me," says Spivey, an infielder. “I looked it up and everything. I had no hesitation in coming."
Spivey discovered that players such as current Major League Baseball stars Jacoby Ellsbury and Chris Davis had come through the WCL as an early steppingstone to the big leagues. Arkansas State’s Adam Grantham did similar research, finding that the WCL had helped to develop a plethora of MLB-bound talent in recent years — 160 former WCL players were on the rosters of affiliated professional clubs last summer, according to the league’s website. From there, Grantham’s decision was simple, he says.
“Really, it was about gaining experience," says Grantham, a pitcher and outfielder who will be a sophomore in the fall. “As a freshman, you only get a few innings, a few spot times. It was gaining experience — hitting experience, pitching experience — and develop as a player."
Experience is a selling point for many college coaches, Richards and Dominiak agree. Players who may not have logged many innings pitched or turns at bat are sent to Bend and other summer collegiate clubs to get their repetitions and improve their game before the fall season begins back at school.
The Elks will not accept just any player, Richards notes. But with the strength of the relationships he and Dominiak have established with college coaches around the country, with the trust that the team, the coaches and the players have with each other, the right fit is found.
“They really had a good idea of what they wanted to send me," Dominiak says of the college coaches. “We have a couple of kids that were supposed to go to the (New England-based) Cape Cod League, which is the No. 1 collegiate league in the United States ... and (we’re) very blessed with having that. The guys know what they want and what I want to do with them."