Deming native gives Oregon team New Mexico experience

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It would have been hard to imagine for Deming’s Eric Leyba that his coaching career path would lead him to a state where the rainfall total for a couple weeks exceeds his home town’s annual total.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Lancer coach Eric Leyba directs his Churchill team in their first game of the season at Valencia High School. Softball has yet to begin in Oregon and the Lancers are getting a head-start with eight games in Leyba’s native New Mexico.

But the New Mexico State University graduate ended up in Eugene, Ore., at Churchill High School, where he has coached softball for the last 13 years.

For the past six years, Leyba has gotten his Lancers away from the rain and cold of Eugene and shown his teenage team his home state.

Churchill participates in a tournament and plays several individual games to make the eight-game pre-season scheduled allowed by Oregon rules.

He said that he tried to play in a Las Vegas, Nev., tournament and then return to Oregon for an in-state tournament. That ended when the in-state games were played in a driving snow storm.

“Right there, I just decided that we are not going to do this any more,” said Leyba. “Our rainfall just for March is 17 or 18 inches.”

He contacted the athletic director at Las Cruces and found out there was a tournament during the school’s spring break. The Lancers’ annual road trip was born.

“I had been working on trying to get out and play in some warmer climates outside of Oregon,” said Leyba, who watched his team hit four home runs in their first game of the year at Valencia. The team will play in the Kristen Griego tournament at Rio Rancho this weekend.

“I guess that it is kind of like a college philosophy, to get out and travel,” Leyba said.

It would fit with the NMSU grads’ experience. He was a college assistant coach for 10 seasons for the Aggies before graduating in 1997. He then went to the University of Oregon in the same capacity for two years.

“I got kind of tired of the travel. I was home maybe a month out of the year,” Leyba said. “I met my wife in Oregon and even though she allowed me to do it, we were getting ready to start a family.”

The high school schedule was not as travel heavy.

“I am pretty lucky,” said Leyba. “She still allows me to go on these trips. I have an understanding wife.”

The Lancers are starting softball a couple weeks ahead of most Oregon teams. It is an edge that senior Taylor Terry likes.

“It is good because they are out here all year round and in Oregon we don’t get that opportunity,” said Terry. “I guess you could say that we are further behind on fielding and things. But it gives us a chance to learn from our mistakes and just get better.”

Terry explained that the trip helps the team grow closer.

“We get to be a family and this trip actually brings us together,” said Terry. “We get to stay in a house together.”

Fellow senior Savannah Hitchcock agreed.

“I really enjoy it a lot,” said Hitchcock. “My freshman year, I was the one following around a lot.”

She noted the difference now that she is a senior.

“This year we brought more people with us and we are hanging around together and getting to know each other and bonding,” said Hitchcock. “As a senior, we get to show them what to do. I like coming out here early and getting games in before the other teams do back at home.”

Leyba explained that is exactly what he wants to teach the kids.

“They understand what it takes to play on a team like that,” said Leyba. “When we get back, we will be ahead because the other teams have not gotten out and they have not played the competition that we have.”

Senior Danielle Duman likes exploring the culture of New Mexico and appreciates the interaction with other teams and the local people.

“Every year, the people here are very welcoming,” said Duman. “The teams we play are awesome. They let us come in here from 1,500 miles away and let us play in their ball parks. It shows how very welcoming they are.”

She has now gotten to experience both southern and central New Mexico. The school’s spring break changed a couple of years ago, opening the opportunity to play at the Griego tournament.

“We went to Las Cruces and now we are in Albuquerque, so that is a little bit different,” said Duman. “We get to go to Old Town and get the cultural things, too. I think that is awesome, because you don’t get to do that every day of your life.

“I am very glad that I have gotten to take these trips every year and experience the culture and get to play different teams.”

Her teammate, Terry, chimed in about the different climate.

“It is different weather to us,” she said, causing the other girls to laugh out loud. “It is nice, we can actually get our tan on a little bit. We are not pasty when we get back.”

Leyba noted that the atmosphere aided the four homer day.

“It is the light air out here in New Mexico,” he said, chuckling. “It is not damp.”

The coach explained why he is excited every year to make the trip.

“Being a former New Mexican, it is a joy to come back,” said Leyba. “The people always treat us so well and nothing compares to that. We are very fortunate to make this trip every year.”

He explained that the team stays at a local residence, instead of at a hotel.

“It is just like being at home. Last night, we barbecued,” Leyba said. “Hopefully, we get a little team bonding out of it and will be stronger, because we know one another. It is a good experience for these kids.”


-- Email the author at mstearns@news-bulletin.com.