When former Centralia College baseball head coach Kawika Emsley-Pai suddenly left the team in late March, just eight days before the 2021 season began, the season could have gone two ways: the team could fold and give up, or they could come together and keep working to win games.
The Trailblazers chose the latter.
Pitching coach Ben Harley was thrust into the interim head coaching role and led the Blazers to a 15-17 overall record and 12-14 in league, capping their best season since 2010.
“I was pretty proud of the guys because they all banded together and used it as a motivator to get better and move forward,” Harley said. “I think it was a good thing we played right away because there was no waiting around. It was time to compete and get on the field.”
It also helped that the Blazers had only played a couple games in 2020 before the pandemic shut Northwest Athletic Conference sports down. The players were hungry to get back at it.
“They were so ready to play baseball games that I don’t think it mattered who the head coach was at the moment,” Harley said.
Harley and the Blazers’ spirited effort, in the face of adversity, helped him be promoted to head coach after the season ended, as announced on June 23.
His No. 1 reason for applying for the head coaching job and staying with the team was simple: the players.
“I think we have a really good group of guys that not only want to win games but advance their careers to the next level and get to a four-year (university) and finish their degrees,” Harley said. “I also just love the campus. They’re doing a really good job of building a new field and bringing forth things that are not only going to make the baseball program better but the entire campus. I think it’s a great opportunity to be a part of that.
“My wife and I live in town and we want to be a part of something that’s going to be well-representative of the entire town, not just a group of guys playing baseball.”
Harley brings a wealth of coaching experience to the Blazers. His coaching career began at Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, Oregon. He then moved on to be the pitching coach for Peoria High School in Peoria, Arizona. After that, he was hired as head baseball coach at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon.
In fall 2019, he joined both Centralia College as its pitching coach as well as for the Highline Bears, a summer collegiate baseball team in White Center, Washington. He was promoted to the Bears’ head coach in 2020.
Now, he’ll get a chance to make his mark on the Trailblazers and revive a program that hasn’t won a league title in decades.
He’s about to get a big boost for his recruiting pitches as Centralia College announced plans in October 2020 to build a multipurpose athletic complex in the vacant lot across from the school’s gymnasium. Construction is set to begin in late 2021.
“It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be a game-changer for us, softball, soccer and all the sports programs,” Harley said. “We can go right from the weight room and training room to the practice field.”