SHELTON — When a baseball team’s state playoff drought dates to well before its current players were born — and when the head coach was just an infant — it can be prominent.
But Shelton High School’s decades of deep postseason frustration came to an end with last week’s 4-2 victory over Decatur in the Class 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict tournament.
The Highclimbers’ absence from the state playoffs is over after 41 years. They will play in the regional round Saturday.
“The last time we did something like this, I was just born,” said Craig Gregory, the Highclimbers’ second-year coach.
Yes, four decades is a long time. In 1973, while the nation’s oil crisis meant gasoline prices skyrocketed to 55 cents a gallon and President Richard Nixon was in office, the Highclimbers made the state playoffs for the first time.
On May 26, 1973, at Centralia’s Ed Wheeler Field, Shelton defeated Centralia, 3-2, for what remains the school’s only state playoff win in baseball. The Highclimbers lost to Mark Morris, 10-3, later that day.
Since then, the program has been silent on the state scene — until now.
Shelton (12-14), which finished fourth in the 3A Narrows League, will face West Seattle, last year’s Class 3A state runner-up, in the Mount Vernon regional opener at 10 a.m. Saturday at Dream Field. Bonney Lake, which Shelton defeated in the bidistrict third/fourth-place game, and Glacier Peak of Snohomish also are in the four-team regional.
Win twice Saturday, and it’s off to Pasco next weekend for the state semifinals and a guaranteed top-four finish.
Senior Sam Gerhold’s father, Dave, is a 1982 Shelton High graduate who tells his son that what the Highclimbers did in the early ’80s doesn’t come close to this year’s success.
“Nothing like this,” said Gerhold, who will get the start on the mound Saturday.
Gerhold, who went 2-2 with a 1.66 earned-run average in 12 league games, describes the Highclimbers like this: They’re not the most athletically gifted or skilled team, but rather a bunch of kids who have played together since their youth baseball all-star and Legion days. They’re like kids you’d see playing backyard-type baseball, he said.
“We believe in each other, and we do what has to get done,” Gerhold said.
After bowing out of the bidistrict tournament a year ago to finish 12-11, Shelton won just four league games this spring and went 0-6 against North Thurston, Timberline and Wilson, which all finished above Shelton in the 3A Narrows standings.
But sophomore infielder/pitcher Trevor Gregory — the coach’s son — said the team is now playing with a purpose.
The Highclimbers are 3-0 in loser-out playoff games and have won five of the past six games.
“We went in with the motto of ‘Play every (game) like it’s your last,’ ” Trevor Gregory said. “That turned it on for everybody.”
If you’re looking for Shelton’s secret weapon for success, you probably won’t be able to pick it out immediately. The Highclimbers don’t hit for power — junior Dalton Hutson has a team-best two home runs — but instead manufacture runs with aggressive base running and rely on pitching and defense.
Since a 13-0 win over Wilson two weeks ago during the 3A Narrows League tournament, the Highclimbers have only dropped one game: a 10-2 loss to Columbia River in the bidistrict semifinals Saturday, three days after beating Decatur to secure their regional berth.
The baseball team’s success is part of a banner spring for the high school.
The fastpitch team is district tournament-bound, the girls tennis team won the 3A Narrows regular-season title and the boys golf and girls track and field teams won titles at their league championships.
The boys soccer team was one victory away from state after a rough fall and winter for two major boys sports: football (2-9 overall) and boys basketball (0-20).
With the baseball success comes a spike in fans. For Gerhold, the name on the front of the Highclimbers’ jerseys means more than just competing for the high school.
“We’re doing a lot for this community,” he said.