Saying this high school baseball season has been a memorable one for Rogue River head coach Shane Macuk would be an understatement.
In truth, it’s safe to say he will never forget the 2018 campaign, and most among the Chieftain faithful would likely agree — although each reason may not match up.
On the field, Rogue River is doing things it hasn’t done in nearly a decade after recently securing the program’s first winning season since 2010 and first trip to the state playoffs since 2011.
For Macuk, it’s been an invigorating first year with the Chieftain program after 16 seasons as a junior varsity assistant for Mack Lewis at Crater High.
The year, however, took an interesting turn May 5 prior to a pivotal Southern Cascade League doubleheader at home against Cascade Christian. Macuk had just stepped behind a barricade to pitch batting practice to his first batter when, boom, it happened.
“I threw the ball and he hit it and when he hit it, the ball ricocheted off the post and it hit me right in the face,” said Macuk. “That wasn’t any good, any good at all. It’s the first time actually I thought I was going to need an ambulance.”
Macuk spent the day in the emergency room and with an eye specialist instead of coaching his Chieftains, who went on to fall 11-9 and 15-8 to a Challengers team that earned the SCL title.
“It broke the front portion of my eye socket and shattered the back portion,” said Macuk, who plans to have surgery Wednesday to repair the issue.
“I still can’t see out of my eye,” he added. “I can open my eye but I don’t have very good vision in it so I can’t drive or anything like that. My eye surgeon said it’s going to take some time but I should be able to get my vision back.”
On Wednesday, the plan is to rebuild the eye socket portion in the back and implant a titanium mesh that will help support the bones and keep his eye in its socket.
“It’s not good but I have to do it or else I’ll have permanent deformity in my eye or have permanent vision loss because there’s no bone left to support it,” said Macuk.
He also continues to have some numbness in his face due to the nerve being damaged, but that feeling is beginning to come back and the doctors don’t anticipate it being a permanent issue. Macuk also hopes the black dots in his vision and blurriness will go away in time, but he also adds he feels fortunate that the damage wasn’t even more severe.
“I was glad my eye was still in my head,” Macuk said of that fateful Saturday in the hospital. “There was a point there they were so concerned about that because so much blood was building up behind my eye it was pushing it out of the socket.”
From what Macuk has been told, his vision should be restored to normal following Wednesday’s procedure, and that should give him plenty of time to recover before he and the Chieftains make a long-awaited appearance in the state playoffs on May 23 against a team to be determined.
Rogue River earned the SCL’s No. 2 seed and automatic berth in the Class 3A state playoffs by shrugging off Macuk’s injury and the sweep by Cascade Christian to secure a must-win contest over Lakeview last Tuesday and then sweep Illinois Valley last Saturday.
“With my head injury and all that, it was a very tough week so I’m really proud of them,” said Macuk, whose team edged Lakeview for second place by one game.
Macuk had to call in Lewis to take the reins on the field against Lakeview as he was still recovering from initial headaches and pain from his beaning.
“It was the exact same system we ran for 16 years together so I knew it would be easy for Mack,” he said. “I called pitches that day and hid in the dugout from any projectiles. That worked out pretty good.”
Feeling closer to his normal self, Macuk returned to full duties last Saturday against the Cougars without incident.
Rogue River now stands 14-8 overall after going 8-4 in SCL play, and will enter the playoffs No. 15 in the Class 3A state power rankings.
“Overall we’re kind of flying under the radar a little bit,” added Macuk. “We’re a little better than what we look like on paper, and that’s partly my fault after trying to figure out what everybody can do and where everybody should go for so long this season.”
All of this is new for Macuk, who expected to be watching his youngest son Nic play for Crater this season at the varsity level and opted to retire alongside Lewis. When his junior son decided to take the year off from baseball, Macuk was more than willing to listen to Lewis’ pleas after his “old boss” told him of the Rogue River coaching vacancy only days before the team’s first practice was to begin.
All Macuk knew of the Chieftains was research over the past three seasons that showed Rogue River had combined for only 12 wins in that span (against 55 losses). The fact that the Chieftains hadn’t had a winning season since going 14-10 in 2010 or reached the state playoffs since 2011 despite going 9-14 that season was a mystery.
Rogue River’s best season in recent history came in 2009, when the Chieftains went 19-7 overall and 13-1 in league play before losing to Vale in the 3A state quarterfinals under John White. The program only had three winning years (2008-10) in the past 12 seasons.
“Going in that was a huge target on us,” said Macuk. “I told the kids that we had to play with a chip on our shoulders and earn everybody’s respect, and that’s what we’ve tried to do. Those guys just took me in with open arms and the system we run with open arms. They were determined that they wanted to be the guys that turned it around.”
The first thing the head coach discovered was, well, these Chieftains are pretty darn good and they have the kind of genuine camaraderie teams need to be successful.
Senior catcher Jacob Tambellini was Macuk’s “go-to guy” from Day 1 in helping him set a new tone for Rogue River, with junior shortstop/pitcher Derek Nelson and senior second baseman/pitcher Henry Black also playing big roles.
“Those three guys are really the backbone of the team and the leadership of the team,” said Macuk. “Tambellini is just a great young man and he just runs through the wall for you if you ask him to. All of our seniors and juniors have really helped set a good tone for us.”
Tambellini and Nelson lead the team in batting average and RBIs, with Nelson and Black joined by junior Jose Chavez and freshman Caden Tognoni to power the pitching staff. Black’s versatility has been especially helpful given he plays anywhere on the infield depending on shoe is pitching.
All but four of Rogue River’s players are eligible to return next season, and they should get a boost with the addition of Nic Macuk, who enjoyed the group so much after serving as team manager that he opted to transfer to the school. The Macuks moved to Rogue River three years ago but Nic was able to remain at Crater after living in Central Point all his life.
“I’m really excited about this group and for the future,” said the elder Macuk. “One of the most exciting things is the administration here with (athletic director JJ Moses) and everybody is really behind changing all the programs to winning programs over here at Rogue River. It’s just been really great here this year.”
And really, really memorable.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry