Like brothers who have shared life’s pleasures and pitfalls; like sons to the men they have played for and aspire to emulate; to the people they have touched and who have moved them, Taft High baseball stars Caleb King, Josh Salsbery and Jack Stempel are like family.
“I love all three of these kids as if they were my own, and nothing makes me happier than to watch them have the success they so deserve,” their former coach, Dustin Hankins, said.
As scripted in what has amounted to a storybook season, Taft’s triumvirate of senior team captains has led the No. 1-ranked Tigers on an improbable run to the final chapter of Oregon small-school baseball lore.
“I can’t say that one means more to the team than another,” coach Matt Hilgers said. “They are what we strive for in our program.”
Seeded first and host Wednesday to Clatskanie in the Class 3A OSAA State Baseball Championships, King, Salsbery and Stempel will take the field again – just as they have since they first picked up a glove, ball and bat . . .
Only this time, it could be the last.
“People in our community who have watched us grow up have always believed that our program would be at its strongest once Jack, Josh and I were seniors, so we’re looking to prove them right,” King said.
Regardless of the outcome in the loser-go-home State tournament that concludes Friday, June 1, at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, the trio of lifelong youth sports stars understands that without one there would be no other.
“Sports have really been the spark to our relationship because we’ve spent so much time playing together,” Stempel said.
As a group, the tandem is virtually inseparable, their bond undeniable, their friendship unbreakable.
“My best memories are growing up with my teammates over the years,” King said. “Spending the last four years with them has been the best time of my life.”
As individuals, their accomplishments this season are astonishing. As a team, they are unprecedented.
The West Valley League champions have marched into the State playoffs in triumphant fashion, outscoring opponents by an unseemly margin of 156-8 in the regular season with 12 victories without a defeat.
Whether further history is in the making remains to be seen, but there can be no denying that these Tigers are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon, regardless of what happens.
“The group of guys we have now feels like we’ve put Taft baseball on the map, almost like we’ve re-branded the program,” King said.
Taft set the standard last season with a postseason showing under Hankins that marked the first time in school history that its baseball program had reached the second round of the State playoffs in 49 years. Going one better, this year’s league title under Hilgers is the school’s first conference crown in 34 seasons.
“Obviously, a State championship is every team’s dream, but we like to focus on one goal at a time,” said King, whose team will host games Wednesday, May 23; Friday, May 25; and Tuesday, May 29, or as long as it wins. “We like to say, ‘This is our house,’ so winning out at home is our goal.”
After finishing third twice and fourth once in league play as underclassmen, King, Salsbery and Stempel are united in their belief that the stage has been set for the Tigers to move onward.
“Our goals come in stages — to win each game, one game at a time, and to make the most out of every opportunity we have,” Salsbery said.
To do that, Hilgers said his senior stars must continue to contribute their leadership — not only as players, but coaches — on the diamond and in the dugout.
“Without their knowledge and assistance helping with the younger kids, this season would not be what it is,” he said. “They have all had their ups and downs, but they have been there to pick each other up when needed. Each of them took it in stride and made sure the rest of the team followed.”
That has been the framework for success ever since the trio of toddlers began taking turns hitting balls off a rubber batting tee.
“All three of us have grown up in Lincoln City from a very young age,” Stempel said. “We went to kindergarten together, and, for the most part, have been in the same classes all the way up until high school. Starting in All-Stars, we would spend many weekends together, and not much has changed since then. We still spend weekends together just hanging out. Caleb, Josh and I will be brothers forever.”
Caleb King, 17
Centerfielder/pitcher (5-10, 160)
.494 average (.568 league), 38 hits, 35 runs, 42 RBIs
7-0, 1.94 ERA, 45 strikeouts, 36.3 innings
Baseball – First-team all-league outfielder 2015; Honorable mention all-state outfielder 2015. First-team all-league utility player 2016; First-team all-state outfield 2016. First-team all-league pitcher 2017; First-team all-state pitcher 2017.
PERSONAL — Caleb is a lifelong Lincoln City resident. His father, Jason, owns K2 Electric and is Taft’s assistant baseball coach. His mother, Krystal, works at Under Armour at Lincoln City Outlets. King has two sisters, Jayden, 13, a seventh-grader at Taft High 7-12, and, Jorden, 12, a sixth-grader at Taft Elementary.
Caleb’s hobbies include hanging out with friends, watching the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Red Sox, New Orleans Saints, Villanova basketball and anything Oregon State. A sports fanatic, he is uncertain of what he wants to pursue after high school, but said he hopes it will involve athletics.
TRIBUTE — “My parents have to be the most influential people in my life. I love them to death, and everything I do is for them. My dad can be hard on me, being a coach and all, but I know it’s because he knows what I’m capable of, and it drives me to work harder.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing not known among fans about this affable team player is that he’s really never wanted to pitch. Despite the many accolades heaped upon him as a flame-throwing right-hander, King prefers roaming the outfield for the Tigers.
“The adrenaline rush I get from tracking down fly balls in the gap is indescribable,” he said, “especially when the opposition’s crowd thinks the ball is going to drop for a base hit. Tracking it down and catching it silences them.”
Hankins started coaching King as a freshman, but said he first noticed his natural talent long before that after getting his first glimpse of the scrawny kid with puffy hair in travel ball as a Little League all-star.
“Caleb’s talent is second to none,” he said. “He may not be the guy that’s going to hit 25 home runs, but he is the guy that’s going to hit .500 and lead the team in most offensive categories.”
Hankins said King’s most redeeming quality from a coach’s standpoint is his ability to take something away from each and every at-bat.
“He has a way of getting the job done,” he said. “Even if he has an at-bat where he gets out, he learns from it and adjusts for the next appearance, all the while pumping that info to his teammates.”
Despite his reservations about pitching, King proved to be such a natural talent on the mound he earned first-team all-state honors last season.
“Caleb will do whatever is needed for the team,” Hankins said. “He is a selfless player. Caleb has always been a lead-by-example player – and what an example.”
To a man, coaches cite King’s mental approach to the game as his most outstanding trait.
“Caleb is a student of baseball, always asking questions and for help on how to get better.” Taylor Plesha, King’s American Legion coach, said. “The best thing I can say about Caleb is he is a better person than a baseball player, and that is saying something because he is one hell of a ballplayer.”
That assessment has been made possible by King’s overriding desire to excel in whatever endeavor he undertakes.
“He is very determined to be successful,” Hilgers said. “He is a competitor that rises to the occasion. He always has very insightful messages for the team to hear and follow. He expects to win every time he steps between the lines.”
Nowhere is that more evident than the fact he approaches the game with brain and body, virtually round the clock, 24-7.
“He has really grown mentally this year, and it has shown with the season he has put together,” Hilgers said. “He is what I consider a baseball guy. He will play other sports, but baseball is his true passion.”
Observations of King off the diamond summarize him best.
“Caleb is a genuinely awesome kid,” Hankins said “I consider him one of my own. He is honest, hard-working and resilient. The sky is the limit for Caleb. He has the skill, knowledge and passion to go to wherever he wants.”
Josh Salsbery, 18
Shortstop (5-6, 145)
.482 average (.465 league); 40 hits, 44 runs, 18 steals
PERSONAL — Josh was born in Corvallis, but has lived in Lincoln City his whole life. His father, James, is a logger at Melcher Logging. His mother, Lisa, is a waitress. He has an older brother, 19-year-old Joseph, a former star Taft athlete; and a younger brother, Tyson, 3. His 16-year-old sister, Lilly, also competes in sports for the Tigers.
Josh plays baseball, basketball and football, and also wrestled for nine years until high school. He hopes to play baseball at Chemeketa Community College in Salem and become a police officer. “I like to learn things about law and focus on writing skills,” he said. “They help with communication skills in life.” He enjoys watching “Cops” on TV. His favorite movie is “Napoleon Dynamite.”
TRIBUTE — “I would not have gotten through the early stages of teenage life and grown into the young adult I am today without the guidance and knowledge of my mother and father; older brother, Joe; Jason and Lisa King; and Heidi and Kevin Newman. They let me experience things for myself, let me make my mistakes, and helped me understand the meaning of those mistakes.”
Calling him “the sparkplug at the top of our order,” Hilgers considers Salsbery to be one of the most competitive athletes he’s ever seen.
“This year, I feel like he has taken to the next level,” Hilgers said. “He gets us going on offense and in the dugout. Our team feeds on the energy that he brings every game.”
A defensive stalwart as well as prototypical leadoff hitter, Salsbery’s perfect fielding percentage at short in league play last season earned him recognition as the team’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“It doesn’t matter what sport he is playing, he is going to show up and expect to defeat his opponent,” Hilgers said. “He wants to compete in everything he does, and that has made us better as a team.”
Few have grown to know Salsbery better than Jake Tolan, his varsity football coach. Like many around him, Tolan has developed an unwavering fondness for his highly decorated two-way star player.
“I have grown a bond with Jack and Josh that’s bigger than just coach and player,” he said. “I have told both that they have a friend for life in me. They are like little brothers to me, and superstars in the eyes of my two sons.”
While claiming first-team all-league honors in football and baseball, Salsbery prefers commandeering the left side of the infield because of the traits it has developed in him from a leadership perspective.
“Baseball is my favorite sport because it’s one of those things that take passion,” he said. “It takes time to develop and make yourself into the player and person you want to be. And, the great thing is, you can be anybody you want to. It teaches a great level of integrity and discipline to achieve your goals. It is a goal-orientated sport that develops the mind.”
Salsbery said he loves shortstop because he can use his physicality, speed and arm strength despite his small frame. Then just a 16-year-old sophomore, the diminutive infielder displayed his clout when he hit two home runs and a triple against Willamina.
As valuable as his contributions have been, perhaps the curly-haired blonde’s most endearing quality has been his graciousness in sharing the credit while accepting the blame.
“On this team, the younger guys’ ability to adjust and adapt and take on a situation is inspiring, even as a senior who has seen many ups and downs in athletics,” he said. “Their hunger to win and compete is what helps me lead alongside Jack and Caleb.”
“Josh is a winner,” Hankins said. “It doesn’t matter what situation you put him in, he believes he will win. He doesn’t see size as a perceived advantage, he just believes he is going to kick your ass, and he does.”
Jack Stempel, 18
First baseman/pitcher (6-0, 190)
.459 average (.526 league); 34 hits, 35 runs, 30 RBIs
7-1, 0.74 ERA, 45 strikeouts, 47 innings
Basketball – Second-team all-league guard 2018.
PERSONAL — Jack was born and raised in Lincoln City. His dad, Bill, is head of maintenance for Salishan Leaseholders. His mom, Tara, is a secretary at Taft Elementary. He has a 21-year-old sister, BillyAnn, a former Taft High student leader and star athlete who attends Western Oregon University in Monmouth.
An outdoor enthusiast whose favorite subjects are science and math, Jack spends most of his free time hunting, hiking and camping. He plans on attending Oregon State and entering in the Degree Partnership Program through Linn-Benton Community College and earn a degree in Forestry. His favorite movie is “Rocky.”
TRIBUTE – “My family, as a whole, has been the most influential on my life — whether that’s my father for teaching me how to be a respectful young man, or my mother for showing me how to be kind and loving. My entire family is always there for me no matter what the situation is, and I will be forever grateful for that.”
When talk these days involves this three-sport star, it invariably turns to the gruesome leg injury he suffered just prior to the start of last baseball season while sliding into second base in practice. Destined to return as Taft’s starting quarterback in the fall, Stempel missed the entire season after breaking his left fibula and suffering major tendon tears in his ankle.
Hilgers said Stempel worked hard during the fall and winter to have a chance to succeed in baseball this year, and it has shown.
“We were unsure what we could expect from him,” Hilgers said. “He has surprised us all year long with his commitment and abilities. He has been one of our best pitchers all year, as well has being a large contributor in our lineup.”
Stempel’s favorite sport is baseball “because the group of guys that I play with has been playing together since we were very young. We all know each other really well, and that is what makes the spring season so fun.”
Sports, however, aren’t Stempel’s only passion.
Stempel said his favorite sports memories are from the youth league all-star tournaments he and his family would travel to when he was a kid.
“Those tournaments let us grow as friends and as teammates,” he said. “I know that we will never forget the memories that were made at those tournaments.”
Even then, the kid with the engaging smile and GQ looks was determined to be a winner by putting forth his best effort.
“He is a fierce competitor — a team-before-himself, give-the shirt-off-his-back awesome kid,” Hankins said. “He is the definition of a leader. He is vocal, compassionate and leads by example. He takes initiative to make sure everyone around him succeeds.”
“They are similar in many ways,” he said. “They are tremendous leaders on the field and in the classroom, very gifted athletically, and two young men that any coach would want as part of their program. They will both leave big shoes to fill for next year’s Taft male athletes in multiple sports. Athletes like Jack and Josh don’t come around very often. I feel honored to have been able to coach them.”
“Jack is the kid you hope your own kids turn out to be like,” Hankins said. “I have not ever met a young man more mature than Jack.”
After leading his fellow youth throughout Lincoln City for years in the huddle and classroom, leave it to Stempel to sum up the closing chapter in this fairy-tale season best:
“Everyone on our team is putting the team before themselves, and that has been a key to our success,” he said. “Everyone has stepped up when needed. We just need to continue to play together.”
As family and friends . . .
It has been, after all, a family affair from beginning to end.