It would have been easy for the Tenino baseball team to call it a season after the way things started this year.
The Beavers, who feature just three seniors and nine freshmen on their roster, kicked off their 2016 campaign by dropping five out of their first eight games.
“The team was working hard. We were just losing close games. All those losses were competitive. We never were blown out, just making too many mistakes,” Tenino coach Conner Hogue said. “It’s a young team. You expect to make mistakes early in the season. The challenge is can you learn from those mistakes and improve.”
A district championship later and Hogue has more than received the answer to that question.
Despite finishing the regular season with a losing record, the Beavers have played their best baseball when it counts the most.
“Just get to the playoffs and see what happens,” Hogue said. “The big thing was these guys were able to buy in to what we wanted to accomplish here. They never lost sight of that even when we were losing.”
Tenino now takes a No. 1 seed into the regional round of the Class 1A state tournament. The Beavers will meet Nooksack Valley in the first round at 1:00 p.m. Saturday at Castle Rock High School. Should they defeat the Pioneers they will play the winner of Vashon Island and Meridian for a chance to advance to the state semifinals at Yakima County Stadium on May 27.
Seniors Kaleb Strawn, Calvin Guzman and Lucas Edwards were freshmen the last time Tenino advanced to the semifinals, where they lost to league rival Montesano, 6-5, before finishing third.
“The seniors have really embraced the role of team leaders,” Hogue said. “Kaleb and Calvin have done a great job with that. They are our top two pitchers. We’ve had quality pitching the entire season. Early on we made a lot of defensive errors that cost us. We just continued to improve throughout the season.”
Despite finishing fifth in a league that sported the defending state champion in Hoquiam and a pair of larger 2A schools in Aberdeen and Rochester, Tenino entered the district playoffs with high hopes.
A first-round victory over TriCo 1A champion King’s Way Christian kicked off the Beavers postseason run with Strawn leading the way.
The hard-throwing Strawn allowed just three hits and registered 16 strikeouts in Tenino’s upset 4-3 victory over the Knights.
“Everything just started to click for us,” Hogue said. “This was a battle-tested team heading into the playoffs. That is a very good King’s Way team we beat. Our confidence really grew after that win.”
An 8-2 win over Eatonville in the district semifinals was followed by a championship clash with Hoquiam, a team that defeated the Beavers twice in the regular season.
Trailing 4-2, Tenino (12-11) scored five runs in the fifth before besting the Grizzlies, 7-5, to secure the district’s top seed.
Strawn, who was named 1A Evergreen League’s MVP, fanned eight during the title game.
“He’s been incredible for us this season,” Hogue said about Strawn. “I like our chances against anyone when he’s on the bump.”
Strawn will once again get the start against Nooksack Valley, which had a similar regular season to Tenino’s as the Pioneers went 5-7 in the Northwest Conference, then turned it on at the district tournament.
“(Nooksack Valley) has a really good pitcher in Noah Rawls. He’s also their best hitter. He’s hitting about .380,” Hogue said. “We’re expecting it to be a very tough game. When you’re one of the last 16 teams playing, there’s no easy games anymore. We’re just going to ride this wave as long as we can.”
Interestingly, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the last time the Beavers won the state baseball championship, accomplishing the feat in 1986.
“We’ve talked about that a little bit, but not much,” Hogue said. “We’re trying to stay focused on what we are doing. It would make an interesting story though.”
The Blazers, the sixth seed out of the 4A District 4 tournament, has made a habit out of making the state tournament as this year marks the seventh time since 2007 they have made the round of 16. Timberline (15-8) plays Skyline at Foss High School on May 21.
The Hawks and Thunderbirds will both play in the 2A state tournament. River Ridge faces W.F. West at Wheeler Field in Centralia in the first round, while Tumwater meets Cedarcrest at Franklin Pierce High School.