High School Sports

Home run off the church roof, no-hitters make even a humble Cooper Hjerpe beam

Woodland High School pitcher Cooper Hjerpe attempted to throw his fourth consecutive no-hitter April 18. He didn’t get the no-no against Colusa, but Woodland won the game 6-5.
Woodland High School pitcher Cooper Hjerpe attempted to throw his fourth consecutive no-hitter April 18. He didn’t get the no-no against Colusa, but Woodland won the game 6-5. rbyer@sacbee.com

He crushed one home run to such pulverization that the ball bounced off the roof of a church just beyond the right-field fence.

It happened during a three-homer day at venerable Clark Field in Woodland, a holy cow of a wow moment.

He struck out 15 in one game, 14 in another and 15 more ‌another, in the midst of hurling three consecutive no-hitters.

Stuff of legend here? Well, sure. It’s the stuff of Cooper Hjerpe, whose senior season at Woodland High School is playing out in a bit of storybook form.

Hjerpe is a hard-throwing 6-foot-2, 185-pound left-handed ace with a penchant for power at the plate, too.

He showed promise as a junior pitcher, then burst onto the national scene in summer competition, attracting a horde of baseball scouts who tracked him with a sea of radar guns behind home plate. That’s cool stuff for a kid who grew up dreaming of such achievement.

Hjerpe is headed to Oregon State via scholarship to pitch for the defending College World Series champions. But he’s in no hurry to head to Corvallis. There’s plenty of season left to be played out in Yolo County, punctuated by the looming Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. He graduates in June, and may also be drafted.

Hjerpe is a must-see to appreciate. He is as humble as he can be dominant.

He is also human. Even the best aces have an off inning or day, but it’s how Hjerpe handled all manner of great expectations that has resonated with his coaches.

“You can’t be perfect and great all the time, but Cooper always makes teams and batters go, ‘Oh no!’ when they see him,” Woodland coach Joe Whitehead said. “What he’s done this year is phenomenal. He’s an all-time great.”

And that’s saying something from a baseball town such as Woodland. The school has produced first-round picks in slugger Tony Torcato in 1998 and infield star Dustin Pedroia in 2001, well before he reached stardom with the Boston Red Sox.

Hjerpe has struck out 218 batters in 90 1/3 innings over two seasons at Woodland. When he’s on, batters become off.

And to think, for a long stretch, Hjerpe was an underdog. He wasn’t the big man on campus growing up because he often wasn’t even the biggest guy on the pitching staff, not to mention the roster.

“When I was younger, I was pretty small,” Hjerpe said. “I was 5-2 and not even breaking 100 pounds, then I had the growth spurt and I just got better.”

Hjerpe towers now beyond his 4-1 pitching record and 89 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings for a Wolves team that has sights set on the Golden Empire League championship. His fastball has touched 90 mph, and it expects to gain velocity as he gains weight in college.

Hjerpe this season also sports a .441 batting average with six home runs, 34 RBIs and 22 runs. He fired no-hitters against struggling teams in Mira Loma (striking out 15 with no walks in five innings of an 11-0 victory) and Mesa Verde (fanning 15 in five innings with one walk). And he dazzled against Casa Roble, an established baseball program dating to the early 1980s.

Against the Rams in a 1-0 victory on April 4, Hjerpe struck out 14 in seven innings and walked one.

“Cooper is a blue chipper,” Casa Roble coach Ed Tupper said. “He’s a no-hitter threat every time he takes the mound.”

Barbara Bodkin has kept the official scorebook for Woodland baseball for 43 years. She has seen her share of monstrous pitching efforts.

“Oh my goodness,” she said excitedly recently, “What Cooper has done is amazing.”

Hjerpe has a 3.8 grade-point average, proof that his senior season is more than wins, losses and strikeouts. He plans to study kinesiology at OSU.

Hjerpe finds joy away from baseball in fishing and the wide-open views of Capay, where his family lives, some 25 minutes away from Woodland.

“I’m having a great time, making the most of it, doing all I can,” Hjerpe said. “I’m proud of the team, of myself, but I’m not completely satisfied yet. There’s more to do.”

Hjerpe isn’t big on stats and individual achievement. He’s big on wins, teammates and focus.

“I try to keep tunnel vision when I play,” Hjerpe said. “Baseball is a humbling sport. Can’t get too excited and can’t get too low. But I love a challenge and the competitiveness of the game.”

Hjerpe became enamored with baseball at about the time he could walk. The family home paid a price.

“Holes in the wall, busted chandeliers when he was little – you name it,” Hjerpe’s mother, Lynette, said with a laugh.

Baseball joy turned to somber reality for Hjerpe when he was 13. He was growing so fast, too fast, that the elbow ligament on his growth plate couldn’t keep up.

“Doctors said that to completely heal, I had to take a year off from pitching,” Hjerpe said. “That was hard. All these stories of people needing Tommy John surgery, it would’ve been rough. Throwing a baseball is like holding a 40-pound dumbbell over your head – it can be hard on your arm.”

Legacy is a big deal in sports at any age now. Hjerpe offers a refreshing view.

He is “honored to play on a field that has had so many legends” but does not view himself larger than his team or town. But this kid has done enough to take a bow. He has done it the right way, and much of it in the ideal venue.

To be sure, Clark Field is one of the state’s most storied baseball yards. It is closing in on 89 years old and has housed some of the game’s biggest names.

In 1934, Joe DiMaggio and his San Francisco Seals played a doubleheader at the field on Beamer Street, a relay throw away from the high school. DiMaggio returned to Clark Field in 1964. He was the guest of honor for the opening of the Babe Ruth World Series.

A total of nine Hall of Famers have competed on that field as part of Major League Baseball’s exhibition games in the 1930s and ’40s.

Clark Field is a slice out of small-town Americana, where people of all ages and walks of life come to enjoy innings and baseball heroes. It has been a place of celebration, memories and healing.

Beloved Woodland baseball coach Felix Castillo died in 2016, from a heart attack at 48, and a town that lives for its baseball was in a state of grief. His initials are on the outfield fence. Castillo was close friends with Whitehead.

Hjerpe recalled the home run that moon-shot off the church roof as something of an out-of-body thrill, something for the Clark Field faithful to talk about for years to come.

Same with the 1-0, 14-strikeout no-hit masterpiece against Casa Roble.

“I was floating in my shoes as I ran the bases,” Hjerpe said of the home run. “The no-hitters were fun, too.”

Woodland’s senior day was Friday. Hjerpe got the start. He struck out 10 in 4 2/3 innings, though cross-town rival Pioneer won 6-5 in extra innings. Hjerpe had a no-decision.

Hjerpe’s mother held a cut-out picture of his likeness in the stands. His father, Carl, has also long admired Clark Field.

He pitched and played infield for Davis High in 1980, with Woodland the chief rival. He set pitching appearance records at Cal Poly and now works in the sunflower business, logging hundreds of thousands of miles on his pickup truck and seemingly that many in his work boots.

It’s common for Carl to pull off those boots as he sits in a lawn chair to watch his son pitch, Lynette next to him, fidgeting anxiously. Parents especially feel the strike zone when their son pitches. They agonize over a pitch that just missed and celebrate the ones that cannot be hit.

The Hjerpes have family and friends who attend games, some belting out, “Coop! There it is!” when the kid has a big moment.

“It’s great to watch Cooper, but it’s baseball and there’s anxiety,” Carl Hjerpe said. “Have to be careful I don’t hurt my hamstring by (celebrating or jumping) too fast.”

And on the theme of fast?

“It’s all gone by so fast, watching Cooper grow up, sometimes too fast,” Carl said. “I wish it would slow down. It’s ending too fast here.”

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.