The first of eight long weekends of baseball at Olympic Stadium kicked off Saturday as the Cascade Collegiate League began its fourth consecutive summer season at Hoquiam’s historic ballpark.
Under consistent blue sky and sun, the four teams of the Cascade Collegiate League combined for a pair of games Saturday, then woke up on Sunday to start play at 9 a.m., with action continuing well into the evening.
Fans can catch that same format free of charge each weekend throughout June and July, when nearly 50 games will be played at Olympic Stadium.
Relative to the pressurized environment of the spring college baseball season, the summer league — the “offseason” — has a more laid-back feel. Each team is endearingly named: the Llamas, Torts, Salamanders and Chinooks. It’s a time to experiment — hitters tweak swing mechanics, pitchers dabble with new grips, and players who might normally fight for a few innings of playing time find themselves taking the field consistently.
That doesn’t mean they don’t get excited. In the first few innings of a game Saturday, Solomon Heineman smashed a line drive into the right-center field gap, and, after motoring around second and sliding safely into third, raised his hands triumphantly over his head and let out an enthused shout. His manager, Gunnar Ueda-Pancheri, congratulated him with a hand slap.
Ueda-Pancheri — referred to as “Panch” by those in the game — played a big role in bringing the Cascade league to Olympic Stadium. The league was formed in 2019 by Ben Krueger, who now serves as the head baseball coach at Yakima Valley Community College. When the pandemic shut down most baseball a year later, Krueger teamed up with Panch, then an assistant coach at Grays Harbor College, to provide one of the only college summer baseball leagues around in 2020.
Although no longer with the program, Ueda-Pancheri served as head baseball coach for Grays Harbor College in 2022 and 2023, setting single-season program win records in consecutive years and leading the team to its first playoff birth in nearly a half-century.
Both the Chokers and Krueger’s Yaks play in the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC), a league of community college athletics in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Many, but not all, Cascade league players come from around the NWAC, including a handful from Grays Harbor College. In other cases the pipeline is reversed — players enter the league unaffiliated and gain exposure, and ultimately a roster spot, with a college program. That happened last year with Hunter Hilliard, who first played in the Cascade league and then became a key piece in the Chokers’ lineup.
A few players are originally from the Northwest but play at colleges elsewhere, and in other leagues, including Division II and Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In total, the league is comprised of about 150 players, whittled down from a pool of more than 600 applicants, according to Ueda-Pancheri.
The top players of that pool were chosen for the “showcase” team, which will compete throughout the summer against other teams in the West Coast League, a college league featuring many NCAA Division I players. Throughout the summer Hoquiam-based players have a chance to be called up to play in the West Coast League.
Playing in his second year in Hoquiam, Josephan Gonzalez is a tall right-handed pitcher for the Chinooks who just finished a stint at a small school in Arizona and is now looking for a new home. He throws a firm fastball in the 92-93 mph range — fast enough to scoot by some hitters, but on its own not enough to be successful at a higher level. He said he planned to use the summer season to add new pitches to his arsenal, hoping to eventually develop a six-pitch quiver.
During a break in the action Saturday, Gonzalez signed autographs for three young little leaguers who had wandered over from a game at a nearby field.
“It’s big, we don’t get a lot of this stuff in Hoquiam,” said 10-year-old Alonso Aguilar after receiving a signature.
The crowd of a few dozen at Olympic Stadium remained fairly sparse throughout the day, but Braden Ray, manager of the Llamas, said the turnout was promising compared to last season.
“It’s nice having fans here,” Ray said. “It makes the kids want to play better, want to flash the leather, want to get that hit, and it keeps them in check a little bit more.”
Ray, who served under Ueda-Pancheri at GHC as assistant baseball coach the past two seasons, said Olympic Stadium’s rich history is a large part of what drew him to coaching the Cascade league.
Olympic Stadium is the product of depression-era federal spending as part of FDR’s New Deal. Over the course of four months, 400 laborers built the stadium with fir trees logged on the Olympic Peninsula and milled in Hoquiam.
When the stadium was completed on the west side of Myrtle Street in the fall of 1938, nearly the entire town of Hoquiam, with just over 10,000 residents, could pack into the wooden grandstands. The same is true today, although the old stadium’s capacity is now 7,500.
Other large wooden stadiums were built around the same time period, but Olympic is one of the last of its kind. According to the National Register of Historic Places, Eric and Wendy Pastore, Hall-of-Fame experts on North American ballparks, note that Olympic Stadium is the largest all-wooden grandstand in the United States, and maybe in the world.
And unlike most regular season college leagues, the Cascade league uses wood bats. Upon solid contact, the crack of the bat bounces off a half-million board feet of old-growth timber, creating an extra-sweet sound, Ray said.
“The all-wood (stadium) just sounds better,” Ray said. “When there’s a pitcher that can kind of bring it a little bit, they can make this stadium pop. In my opinion, it sounds the way baseball is supposed to sound.”
Taiki Kondo, an outfielder who currently plays at Southwestern Oregon Community College, but is originally from Osaka, Japan, said he can “feel the history of the stadium.”
“This league is enjoyable,” Kondo said.
The Cascade Collegiate League will continue play with two games this Saturday, June 10 starting at 1 p.m., followed by four games on Sunday starting at 9 a.m. For a complete schedule, rosters and more information visit https://www.cascadecollegiateleague.com/.