The only head coach the Cowlitz Black Bears have ever known is leaving the team to pursue a full-time, paid assistant coaching position in California.
Black Bears coach Bryson LeBlanc accepted a job with the University of California Riverside baseball team on Aug. 16, Cowlitz announced late Wednesday. LeBlanc, who was previously a volunteer assistant at the University of Oregon, will spend his summers scouting and recruiting for the Highlanders instead of patrolling the David Story Field dugout for this area's two-year-old West Coast League franchise.
"It's been a whirlwind," said LeBlanc, who informed Black Bears owner Tony Bonacci that he'd be leaving on Aug. 17.
Like almost all summer collegiate league head coaches, LeBlanc handled player recruitment for Cowlitz, a vital component of sustained success in an environment with nonstop roster turnover, season-to-season. His ties with Oregon supplied seven current or incoming Ducks to the Cowlitz roster in 2011, including Major League Baseball draft picks Billy Flamion, Mitchell Walding and Spencer O'Neil, plus the Bears' top hitter (Kyle Garlick) and best starting pitcher (Jeff Gold). LeBlanc also built relationships with several other Division I programs, including LSU and Missouri.
Now, those pipelines must be rebuilt by the next head coach.
"He was an extremely productive and diligent recruiter," said Bonacci. "He did his homework, he was thorough and he was organized and was a fantastic recruiter ... I'm sure it will serve him well at the next level."
LeBlanc planned to return to the Black Bears for a third year as the 2011 season came to a close in the second week of August. But the romance with UC Riverside and the Highlanders baseball program blossomed quickly.
LeBlanc interviewed for the assistant coaching position at UC Riverside in December, but was not selected. Midway through the summer, the job opened again.
On Aug. 15, LeBlanc called Highlanders head coach Doug Smith to inquire about the position's availability. He and Smith talked several times over each of the next two days, LeBlanc said. He was offered the job on Aug. 16.
He informed Bonacci and Bears' general manager Grant Wilson the next day.
"I'm really excited for Bryson and know he will do a great job at UC Riverside," Wilson wrote in a press release issued Wednesday night. "Bryson is energetic, knows the game, and has the contacts to bring top HS and JC players to UC Riverside."
Bears assistant coach Josh Hogan, also an Oregon assistant at Oregon, would have been a prime candidate to succeed LeBlanc, but was hired to coach divisional opponent Klamath Falls. Hogan's hire was announced the day after LeBlanc accepted the position at UC Riverside, and the same day LeBlanc informed the Black Bears of his departure.
In the press release, Wilson said the team was already interviewing candidates to replace LeBlanc, with an announcement expected "within a week."
Wilson did not return phone calls or emails on Thursday seeking further comment.
LeBlanc said that Bonnaci and Wilson have solicited his input for the coaching search.
"I don't know how much influence I've had, but we have talked," LeBlanc said.
The Bears were prepared for the inevitability of LeBlanc's departure, Bonacci said, but had no forewarning that it was imminent. He added that Cowlitz has started the process of hiring a successor, but declined to elaborate. Bonacci said that the team has not targeted a date for making a hire and is still developing a list of candidates to replace LeBlanc.
"This ... is a busy recruiting time for us, so it is a position that we are trying to fill sooner rather than later," Bonacci said.
LeBlanc said that given his situation as an unpaid volunteer assistant, it was common sense that he'd jump at any chance to coach full time.
"You can't really work for free forever," LeBlanc said. "My staff knew, Tony knew and I think Grant knew, but as a young guy volunteering, you're always kind of on the look, and the summer's the time when jobs open up. We all knew that that was a possibility."
Of course, it might never have happened without the Black Bears, who gave LeBlanc his first head coaching opportunity.
"Tony and Grant gave me my first shot as a head coach," LeBlanc said. "It was a great experience. Got to manage over 110 games, helped me get in touch with other baseball people in this industry. I'll be forever grateful and thankful."
LeBlanc was 46-56 in two years with Cowlitz. Counting a strong finishing kick in 2010, the Bears went 36-28 in LeBlanc's final 64 games, falling one game shy of reaching the playoffs this summer.
Despite losing LeBlanc's recruiting web and game experience, Bonacci expects the Bears' winning trend to continue in 2012.
"Because it's a process we've already begun, I don't think we will miss a beat," he said.