By Tyler Urke in Sports
Like any two-year college, Clark’s athletic programs are used to the high turnover rate of athletes.
What they weren’t prepared for was their baseball coach leaving a week before the start of preseason workouts.
Head Coach Don Freeman left in late August to coach the German National Team for the fourth time this summer and didn’t return to coach the Penguins. The athletic department, which had just hired Athletic Director Ann Walker, was forced to quickly find his replacement.
“It was late August and school was about to start, so for me that was a sense of urgency,” Walker said.
Freeman was hired in 2010 when Clark’s baseball program was revitalized after a 19-year hiatus. Freeman coached at Prairie High School from 1979 to 2004, winning state championships in 1986 and 1989. He was hired at Heritage High School in 2008.
“Being new to this area I didn’t know who Don was,” Walker said. “But what I did know was that we just lost our baseball coach.”
Luckily, Walker didn’t have to look far for a replacement.
Brett Neffendorf, assistant coach for the 2014 season, expressed interest in the position, so the logical thing to do was to bring him on campus for an interview, Walker said.
“If I say he was outstanding in his interview that wouldn’t even do justice,” she said.
Neffendorf had been preparing for this opportunity his whole life. He said he grew up in a sports family and his dad was a basketball coach for 30 years.
“I knew I always wanted to coach from a young age,” Neffendorf said.
He planned on pitching at Clackamas Community College, but needed Tommy John surgery his freshman year. After a long recovery, he tore his labrum the next year. Neffendorf then decided to enter the family business.
“When I got hurt my brother was just getting into coaching, so I got into coaching as well,” he said.
Neffendorf coached at multiple high schools and colleges in Oregon since his injury. His most recent stint before Clark was as an assistant coach at George Fox University.
The Penguin team he inherited is strikingly different from the one he helped coach last year. Clark had about 20 sophomores last year and has 26 freshman on their roster this year, according to Neffendorf. He said he will be relying on the eight sophomores to teach the young team the “Clark way.”
“My philosophy is to train our leaders to be an extension of our coaching staff,” Neffendorf said. “Our team chemistry is going to define how successful we are along with our play obviously. The things that we don’t see, those guys will be able to say [to other players], ‘This isn’t the philosophy we have in our program.’”
Neffendorf highlighted three sophomore captains who will be asked to lead the team: Sam Kosbab, Bret Moskal and Layne Sutton.
Kosbab hit .234 last year and patrolled the outfield while Moskal played 12 games as catcher. Sutton pitched the most games out of any player last year and saved two games.
Neffendorf said his strategy is to hold the opposing team to as few runs as possible.
“Pitching and defense is going to win games,” Neffendorf said. “Any baseball mind will tell you that regardless of how many runs we score, if we can’t keep teams under three runs a game I think it’s going to be tough to win.”
Assistant Coach Luke Merkel is in his first year at Clark. Merkel, 20, was a player assistant at Shoreline Community College last year and met Neffendorf while coaching an independent team in Oregon called “Athletes in Motion.”
Like Neffendorf, Merkel got into coaching after sustaining injuries. Merkel tore his ACL and then developed thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare condition that involves pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness and tingling of the fingers and a weak grip.
Merkel said he’s most impressed by how organized Neffendorf is.
“Everyday us coaches know exactly what we need to be doing,” Merkel said. “Players know exactly what they need to be doing, so everything runs pretty smoothly.”
Although he has big shoes to fill, Walker said she isn’t worried about whether or not Neffendorf is right for the job.
“What I do know is that Brett has the tenacity, the work ethic, the drive and all the other intangibles to create a very successful program here,” Walker said.
Neffendorf said he doesn’t view Clark as a stepping-stone to a better coaching gig.
“I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” Neffendorf said. “I love Clark. You just don’t find many junior colleges like this.”