No place like home
By Grant Lucas
Casey Powell’s eyes scan the walls of the clubhouse. The benches on which he and I sit, the lockers that surround us, none of this was here 21 years ago. This was just a dirt hill then, serving as a backstop of sorts to the Mountain View High baseball field some 20 yards away.
“This was our practice field,” recalls Powell, a two-year varsity standout for the Cougars before graduating in 1993. “Our home field when I was on varsity was Vince Genna (Stadium).”
Powell’s focus darts to the clubhouse door, which stands ajar, allowing the fresh air of a rain-soaked spring afternoon to slip inside. His gaze fixates on the door, as if he is looking through it to see how the Mountain View diamond is faring as the showers continue to pelt the High Desert.
The skinned portion of the infield was resurfaced just a few weeks ago, a clay-dirt combination giving the baseball complex something of a face-lift. This field makes what Powell practiced on back in the day seem like an unkempt sandlot.
He remembers how former Cougars coach Sid Spurgeon would incorporate grounds maintenance into the team’s conditioning routine.
“ ‘All right, fill your gloves with rocks,’ ” Powell recalls Spurgeon ordering his players. “We had to fill up our gloves with just handfuls of rocks. Two glovefuls of rocks, that was our conditioning. We did that for four years, and I was still picking rocks off that field. This field is way better — not even close — to what I was playing on then.”
Powell has been away from Mountain View for more than 20 years now. He played baseball at NCAA Division-III Linfield College in McMinnville for four years and followed that with another 15 years of coaching in the college ranks, mixing in a few summers on the coaching staff of the Bend Elks summer collegiate team.
But this season, after being let go by Division-I Seattle University last summer, the 38-year-old Powell has returned to his high school alma mater to become the head baseball coach. And honestly, he says, it is really odd. Not in a bad way, mind you, but strange nonetheless.
“I was talking to my brothers (he has two younger brothers, both also Mountain View graduates), just telling them how weird it was walking through the halls,” says Powell, who serves as an education assistant at the high school, providing help to students with learning disabilities.
“Some of the stuff from practices I remember, just being out on the field,” adds Powell, whose father, Clyde Powell, was the first football coach at Mountain View. “Driving by the football stadium is weird a little bit. I spent so much time in the locker room as a kid growing up. Coming out to daily doubles and those kinds of things. It’s a little different. Neat, though.”
Powell — along with his wife, Jen, and their daughters Morgan, 8, and Cailyn, 5 — relocated to Central Oregon from Washington, where Powell served for four years as an assistant coach at Seattle U. About a month after he was let go from the coaching staff, the Powells were on the move.
“We had to get out. It was just too expensive,” Powell says of living in the Seattle area. “My parents had a place that we knew we could get into eventually. We’ve got family down here, we’ve got some people we know that we can lean on a little bit, kind of go through the job search and that kind of thing.”
Last fall, Powell received phone calls from Summit coach Alan Embree and from Joe Dominiak, who was preparing to enter his first season as the Mountain View coach. Both were interested in his services as an assistant coach or, as Hood notes, potentially a subvarsity coach with the Cougars. At the time, Powell says, coaching high school ball did not pique his interest. He continued applying for college jobs and explored the possibility of becoming a big league scout.
But in January, Powell received another call from Dominiak, who told him he had accepted a coaching job with a small college in North Dakota. Soon after that conversation, Mountain View athletic director Dave Hood got ahold of Powell. Talks with the high school then ensued, leading to an education assistant position for Powell starting in early February.
Hood, who had been given short notice to find a new varsity baseball coach, considers himself lucky to have landed the former Cougar standout.
“We just feel really fortunate that things worked out like they have,” Hood says. “We’re the luckiest program around, given our situation. Everybody talks about Bend High baseball, Summit had a recent (state playoff) run. But I can’t think of a better person to rebuild the Mountain View baseball program than Casey Powell.
“We have found a passionate, phenomenal teacher of the game,” Hood continues. “Casey’s organized, the kids are fired up, he’s teaching the right things. He’s just a character guy. He’s everything you’d expect of a Powell, because his dad was the same way.”
When Powell was in high school, and even into his first two years at Linfield, he planned to become a high school history teacher and coach. But, as he points out, things change.
After finishing up his collegiate playing career — he was the Northwest Conference player of the year as a second baseman for Linfield in 1996 — Powell returned to Linfield as an assistant coach. He immediately fell in love with coaching the college game.
“I really didn’t (think he would coach high school ball),” Clyde Powell recalls. “I remember talking to Casey about that his senior year in college. He was just adamant that he wanted to try the college level first.”
But Casey Powell has now come full circle, back to Mountain View.
“I knew he was missing baseball,” Clyde Powell says. “I wasn’t surprised by it. I was a little surprised how fast it happened. But I also think with the passion he has for the game and the understanding he has for the game and the knowledge he has to impart on these kids, he can teach them how to play at a winning level.”
“It’s special for me, for my family,” Casey says. “Talking to some of my buddies that still live in town that I played with and talking to my brothers, we laugh about it sometimes because it’s weird. It’s just so different.”
Powell sees familiar faces in the classrooms — teachers who have been on the Mountain View staff since he was in school — as well as on the ball field. His current center fielder, for example, is Devin Haney, whose uncle is a former youth baseball teammate of Powell’s.
Casey Powell is not exactly sure what the future holds, if he will remain in Bend or move back to the college ranks. (“I’m going to do what’s best for my girls,” he says. “They’re what’s most important to me.” Any move from his current position, he says, “would have to be a pretty ideal situation.”)
All that matters is the here and now, and that after 21 years, Powell can once again wear the red and black of Mountain View High — and it comes with a bit of relief, considering he coached at Division-III Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., from 2003 to 2009.
“Whitman is blue and gold, and that was kind of hard for me, actually,” Powell says through laughter, referring to the colors of intracity archrival Bend High. “I just remember putting on some of that dark blue and that gold stuff, and it’s like, ‘Man, this feels so wrong to me right now.’”
Clyde Powell agrees: “It’s better than blue and gold.”
After only a few weeks at the Mountain View baseball helm, Casey Powell senses the similarities between collegiate and high school coaching.
“It’s just the skill level’s different,” Powell says. “The D-I college kid, he pretty much knows how to play catch. There’s still some flaws, maybe, in some of his mechanics … but the college kids still have to learn some things. They’re still working every day and doing those little things.”
Powell sits across the clubhouse from me, no more than 15 feet away. I wonder how much smaller all of this must seem to him after spending 20-plus years at the collegiate level, especially considering the clubhouse’s modest size for a facility shared by 36 Mountain View ballplayers.
“The only thing that’s smaller is the players,” Powell says. “Some of the freshmen, it’s just kind of like, ‘Was I that small? Did I walk that gangly sometimes?’ I’m sure I did. We all did. Throwing (batting practice), I’ll throw a few by a kid and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m throwing to high school kids. I’ve got to shorten up a little bit here.’
“But,” he adds, “it’s still baseball.”