By Anne Laufe
It seems that, in recent years, Portland’s interest in the great American pastime has waned. The Portland Beavers have moved away; and, with so many other sports for kids to participate in, from lacrosse and track to year-round soccer, fewer kids are playing Little League and high school ball.
A dedicated group of Northeast Portland coaches wants to change that. Eric Bennett, head baseball coach at Madison High School, and Matt Kabza, varsity baseball coach and co-athletic director at Grant High School, are actively trying to reinvigorate the baseball community in this part of town.
“For avid fans, there’s not a whole lot of baseball around anymore,” said Bennett, who played minor league ball for the Phillies in 1984 and 1985. “We’re looking for ways to involve the community. It’s just an opportunity for people to get together and have a good time.”
Kabza and Bennett have been working together to reach out to some of the youth organizations in the area, including Wilshire Riverside and Hollywood Rose City Little League. They’ll be running various camps and clinics (see below) to involve more boys and also hope to attract more fans to watch them play.
Games are free, and there’s always a snack shack providing the requisite hot dogs and other goodies.
Softball is also alive and well in Northeast Portland. Debbie Engelstad has coached at Grant for 25 years and has seen interest in the sport decline somewhat, but the school still has enough players to field both Varsity and JV teams. To Englestad, softball is a great game to play and watch.
“It’s a fun team sport, and it’s something that kids can do when they’re older, a life-long sport, plus the girls create great friendships,” said Engelstad, who has had students go on to play at Chico State, Marquette, Willamette and Concordia, among other schools.
Madison coach Jeff Neibergall has several returning players this year and hopes to build on their past experience. He, too, said that being on the team is about much more than just softball.
“Anytime you can have the students involved in team activities, sports or anything bigger than themselves, there are lessons to be learned; and it occupies their time with something positive,” he said.
According to Bennett, there’s a rich tradition of baseball at Madison. The school has won six state titles, the most of any school in Oregon, and has produced a number of professional players. Even more important to Bennett and Kabza than developing great athletes, however, is helping their players become good citizens and good students, what Bennett calls “men of character.”
As far as the competition between the two local high schools, Kabza said that Grant and Madison aren’t arch enemies, but rather friendly rivals.
“We encourage people to support both schools,” he said. “Come out and watch us play.”
For complete schedules and more information, visit www.pilathletics.com.
Coach Matt Kabza will be running a Little League Youth Camp at Grant High School on March 2 and 3. For more information, go towww.generalsbaseball.org.