RIDGEFIELD — After the Ridgefield Raptors’ 2022 season ended, Jake Tsukada got a text from teammate Trent Prokes.
Actually, there were multiple text messages on more than one occasion, Tsukada said.
Prokes was in recruiting mode, hoping to convince Tsukada and other players to return to Ridgefield for another summer.
“Right after the season, in the fall (and) in the spring, just to make sure I was coming back,” Tsukada said of Prokes.
After all, the Raptors were coming off their most successful season in team history, winning 32 regular-season games and reaching the West Coast League South Division Championship before losing to the eventual WCL champion Corvallis Knights.
Raptors players had a lot of fun in the process too. Why wouldn’t they want to run it back?
“It was just a great experience last summer,” Prokes said. “I love the squad that they have and I love the coaches. It’s just a great environment to be in. I love being out here.”
Prokes (Modesto College) and Tsukada (University of Portland), both mainstays on last year’s Raptors team, were back at Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex on Thursday as the Raptors kicked off the 2023 season with an exhibition game against the Cowlitz Black Bears, their neighbors to the north in Longview.
They highlight a group of returners that also includes catcher Isaac Lovings (Pacific University), Brayden Youkon (Clark College) and a group of pitchers including Sawyer Parkin (Rockhurst University), Eastyn Culp (Umpqua Community College) and Charlie Royle (Cal Poly).
The buzzword of this year’s team is continuity, because, in addition to a handful of familiar faces back playing with the Raptors, the team announced before the season that head coach Chris Cota and assistant coach Nick Allen would both be returning for their fourth season, which spans the Raptors’ entire history.
Cota, the head baseball coach at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., has coached at the college level for 33 years. So what keeps Cota coming back to the Pacific Northwest from Southern California year after year?
“I’ll tell you what, (Nick Allen) makes it easier to come back,” Cota said. “I enjoy the atmosphere. I enjoy coaching kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a 9-year-old at home … it’s just, I enjoy it.”
The combined experience between the two coaches gives the Raptors something several WCL teams don’t have. That stability is important as the Raptors try to build a cohesive team with a different group of players each year.
For every returner like Prokes, Tsukada or Lovings, there’s several more who are fresh out of high school playing college baseball for the first time, or in junior college still in the process of finding a four-year program.
It’s the job of Cota, Allen and pitching coach Tyler Raskin to help bring them along.
“You have to understand first that everybody is different,” Cota said. “You just try to get to know the kid, you try to feel what kind of person he is and if you think there are some issues, you try to help him with them.
“For some of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home. … It’s the process of trying to get them to that next level, as a person and not only a baseball player.”
The Raptors’ roster also includes a handful of Clark County players like Parkin, Culp, Youkon, as well as Josh Mansur, a Ridgefield High School alumnus, and Nick Alder, a Columbia River High School alumnus, both of whom previously played in the Raptors’ feeder program, the NW Star Nighthawks.
Alder, along with Casey Struckmeier, played together at Columbia River and are now pitchers at Linfield University. Parkin also attended Columbia River.
Mikey Miller, a Skyview High School alumnus, is also part of Ridgefield’s pitching staff. Miller played at Clark College this spring and will be moving on to play at NAIA power Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
The Raptors’ offense was among the league leaders last season. Prokes was the WCL batting champion with a .415 average in 34 games. Tsukada, the team’s typical leadoff hitter, hit .333 with 16 RBI in 27 games.
Both saw the team’s chemistry develop quickly last summer and it led to a successful season.
Now that they have a taste of playoff success, the Raptors want more.
“We just want to win it, you know?” Tsukada said. “We got close last year … and we want to win the championship, so that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
The Raptors will get an early measuring stick when they host the champion Corvallis Knights in a three-game series beginning Friday at the RORC.