LONGVIEW, Wash.—The Cowlitz Black Bears are 19-18 on the season, trying to claw to the top of the West Coast League West standings. The team has already won more games than it did last year (18), thanks to contributions from a trio of potential Ducks.
The West Coast League has solidified itself over the past few years by allowing rising freshmen to play with teams, landing impressive talent along the way. The league's top prospect the past two years has been a rising freshman (Andrew Susac in 2009 and Stefan Sabol in 2010).
Cowlitz's lineup has been anchored by three rising freshman committed to Oregon: shortstop Mitch Walding and outfielders Billy Flamion and Spencer O'Neil.
"They've been awesome," Cowlitz head coach Bryson LeBlanc said. "Spencer O'Neil can flat-out hit. Just watching him hit, you could mistake him for Paul O'Neill's son. Billy Flamion, the ball jumps off of his bat, too—and off of Walding's. But Billy just plays the game hard. He's fun to watch play. He's robbed two home runs this year. Mitchell's bat is just starting to come on, but at shortstop he's pretty good. He's long, he's rangy, he has a good arm. All three of them are so special."
The team is staying with host families for the summer. Flamion and Walding are living in the same house, and right across the street are O'Neil and Porter Clayton, a rising sophomore for the Ducks.
"It's been great," Flamion said. "We've all bonded and we're like best friends now. It's going to be good, it's a good experience for us to connect like this before we go up to Oregon."
"That was one of the main reasons I decided to come to Longview and play here, instead of doing the Legion ball thing," O'Neil said. "We wanted to make an easier transition by meeting some guys and playing here. It was a good decision."
All three players were drafted in June. Walding was a fifth-round pick out of St. Mary's High in Stockton, Calif., by the Phillies. Flamion, who went to Central Catholic High in Modesto, Calif., entered the year as one of the top high school bats, but got a slow start out of the gate after football season and fell to the Astros in the 25th round. O'Neil was a 33rd-round pick by the Yankees out of Southridge High in Kennewick, Wash.
All three players were named to the West Coast League's West all-star team, as part of a group of seven players from Cowlitz's roster.
O'Neil is leading the trio, hitting .301/.363/.407. Walding is hitting .243/.333/.280 and Flamion is hitting .202/.336/.323.
"I've been mainly working on hitting the ball the other way and then keeping my shoulders closed defensively," Walding said. "So far, I think I've been getting to a lot more balls deeper in the hole."
While all three players said they are working on adjusting to hitting with wood bats, facing better pitching and dealing with the grind of playing nearly every day, O'Neil said he is focusing on an addition element to being successful in the game: injury prevention.
"That's one of the main things that I realized at this higher level is that so many people get injured all the time," O'Neil said. "You've got to hit the gym every day, and we stretch three to four times a day. You need to do stuff like that with this long season going on."
LeBlanc said all three players have matured this summer, but he has been particularly impressed with O'Neil's happy-go-lucky attitude.
"He's hard to rattle," LeBlanc said. "He's got the personality where he's intense enough to do what he does at the plate, but happy-go-lucky enough to where he can forget it and move on. The failure hasn't shown to get to him."
"You have to take the game day-by-day," O'Neil said. "You can't let a bad performance ruin your day, you just have to keep on keepin' on. You have to have an even keel to play this game—never too high and never too low."
Of course, it's probably a bit easier to have a happy-go-lucky attitude when you're the fan-favorite.
"It's funny to see how all the fans are a big fan of Spencer because he was drafted by the Yankees," Flamion said. "We have all these girls following him around, it's a funny thing. It gets intense . . . they made Spencer O'Neil dog tags and there's Facebook posts that are pretty interesting!"
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