Black Hills is still kind of the new high school in town. Without as much history overflowing its trophy cases as older schools, each new success is greeted with enthusiasm by students and staff.
“The Wolf pack comes together when there’s a team on a run,” said third-year baseball coach Todd Venable, whose squad meets North Kitsap (18-3), and its star left-hander Ryan Hecker, in the first round of the Class 2A state tournament at 1 p.m. Saturday at Auburn High School.
When Black Hills (14-8) edged rival Tumwater, 10-9, for its third consecutive win last month, the players dyed their hair blonde in show of solidarity. When the streak reached seven victories in a row, principal Dave Myers vowed to join them if they qualified for state.
After an 11-7 win over Centralia in the 2A Southwest District tournament vaulted the Wolves into state playoffs, Myers made good on his promise, having his locks publicly dyed during the school day.
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“We’re really excited to have a chance to make history, to do things that haven’t been done here before,” Venable said.
Black Hills is making only its second state appearance in program history. The Wolves dropped a first-round contest to Anacortes two years ago.
While Black Hills has just recently gotten into the act, its league, the 2A Evergreen Conference, has long been a bastion of strong baseball.
Two other 2A EvCo teams will open state tournament play on Saturday.
Tumwater (15-5) meets Lynden (19-3) at Auburn High School at 10 a.m., and league and district champion W.F. West (19-2) plays closer to home against Eatonville (18-7) at 1 p.m. at Wheeler Field in Centralia.
“We have one of the toughest leagues in the state,” W.F. West coach Bryan Bullock said. “It speaks a lot about good coaching and the strength of youth baseball in the area.”
Tumwater coach Clay Hill agrees.
“The entire South Sound has a tradition of strong youth baseball,” he said. “Now, with the expansion of club teams and travel ball, kids get a chance to get out of the area and see what it takes to be successful.”
Hill believes that the bad weather that can wreak havoc with high school schedules — as it did this spring — also helps player development. More fundamental work takes place indoors both in-season and during the winter, he said.
“By the time we get them in March, kids are better baseball players, they’re game ready,” Hill said. “There’s more depth. There’s not the disparity so much anymore of one team having that ‘It’ guy.”
That depth translates into great 2A EvCo play.
“No matter who we’re playing, it’s going to be a tough match-up,” Venable said. “Even the non-playoff teams. We beat Rochester three times, but only by a total of four runs. When we get to districts, we’ve already played as hard of opponents as we’re going to see in the postseason.”
None of the three 2A EvCo coaches know too much about their first-round opponents, instead focusing more on preparing their teams for the reality of a single-elimination tournament.
“Baseball is a sport where the team with the most talented players doesn’t always win,” said Bullock, who will send junior pitcher Brandon White to the mound against the Cruisers.
“You really have to approach it (as) not only one game, but one inning, one pitch at a time.”
While Black Hills and Tumwater know they must take a similar approach, an interesting match-up awaits if both the Wolves and T-Birds win in the first round — a fourth meeting this season of the two rivals after Tumwater claimed the regular-season series 2-1.
“That would be an absolute dream scenario,” said Venable, who has settled on junior pitcher Kristian Knight as the Wolves’ starter against North Kitsap.
“We’re going to go up early and root for them. Lots of our kids grew up together before splitting up for high school. We hope they win.”
Hill, whose starting pitcher against Lynden will be senior Logan Chase, sees a practical positive to meeting Black Hills.
“The best thing about it would be it would mean we won our first game,” he said.
State baseball tournament preview
Saturday: O’Dea (15-6) vs. Timberline (18-6), 1 p.m., Pasco High School
Capital (15-10) vs. Mercer Island (17-2), 1 p.m., Bannerwood Park in Bellevue
Regional finals will be played 45 minutes after final out of previous game; approximately 4 p.m. at the same sites.
Skinny: Not an easy draw in the first round for either local. The Blazers, after dropping a 1-0 loss to Gig Harbor for a 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict title, have to travel east to meet O’Dea, the regular season 3A Metro League champion. This is Timberline’s fourth consecutive trip to the state playoffs, but it hasn’t advanced out of the regional round the past three years. O’Dea missed the state playoffs a year ago, but advanced for seven consecutive years before that, and won three state titles during that span, most recently in 2014.
Capital is back in the state playoffs for the first time since 2010, and won three consecutive loser-out games to get this far. It’s been nearly 20 years since the Cougars won their last state title in 1998, and have to get past the state’s top 3A team, Mercer Island — the 3A KingCo and 3A SeaKing District champs — to make a run. The Islanders won it all two years ago.
Saturday: Lynden (19-3) vs. Tumwater (15-5), 10 a.m., Auburn High School
Black Hills (14-8) vs. North Kitsap (18-3), 1 p.m., Auburn High School
Eatonville (18-7) vs. W.F. West (19-2), 1 p.m., Wheeler Field in Centralia
Regional finals will be played at 4 p.m. at the same sites.
Skinny: W.F. West has the longest history of success of the three locals — it won state titles in 2013 and 2010, and is making its 14th trip to the state playoffs — and arguably the most favorable road. The Bearcats won the 2A Evergreen Conference and 2A Southwest District titles. Eatonville hasn’t reached the state playoffs since 2007, and made the jump from 1A to 2A this year.
Crosstown rivals Black Hills and Tumwater could meet for the fourth time this season in the regional finals, but have to get out of the first round first. The Wolves are in the state playoffs for just the second time in school history, and meet perennial contender North Kitsap, though the Vikings haven’t placed since they won it all in 1988. Tumwater is back for the fifth-straight year — and took third in 2014, second in 2013 — but meets Northwest Conference champion Lynden in the first round.