By Gail Wood
At Tumwater High School, there’s a special bond between their baseball coach and their all-league pitcher. They’re father and son.
Clay Hill, Tumwater’s long-time coach, is both “coach” and “dad” to Elijah Hill, a first-team, all-league pitcher last year for the Thunderbirds.
“You’ll have to ask him if it’s been good for him,” Clay said with a chuckle, rubbing his forehead as he talked. “But I’ve loved it.”
Getting a chance to coach his son is something Clay pursued, accidentally. For 19 years, Clay coached the Tumwater fastpitch team, spending 15 years as the head coach. Then three years ago when Elijah was a freshman pitching on the varsity, Clay started getting involved with the baseball team. He volunteered to do the scoreboard, but the former minor league catcher was invited to coach. That led to him leaving one coaching job for another.
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Clay said, pointing to his son prior to a recent game.
Actually, Clay, who is head baseball coach for the first year, got involved with coaching fastpitch for the same reason. He’s got three daughters who played fastpitch for Tumwater.
“You only get one chance to coach your son, so I walked away from fastpitch,” Clay said.
And there’s no one nudging a buddy while sitting in the stands watching a Thunderbirds game and saying, “He’s only playing because the coach is his dad.” Elijah isn’t the T-Birds number one pitcher because of nepotism. He’s earned it. Last year, he had a 1.25 ERA, helping Tumwater place third in the 2A state tournament and finish with a 25-5 record.
By now, Elijah is used to having his dad coaching him. Clay, who was a standout catcher at Capital High School in the late 70s and reached Triple A in the minor leagues after being drafted, used to catch his son pitching in their backyard, teaching him how to throw.
“He was my coach as a kid, so I’m used to it,” Elijah said. “He doesn’t treat me any differently. I’m just another player.”
“It allows that separation,” Hill said, then added with a smile. “I make all the decisions, but he makes all the recommendations.”
Tumwater has only three returning starters off last year’s team that won a league title. Besides Elijah, there’s Keenan Mulligan in centerfield and Riley Owen at third base and at pitcher. Counting the seven seniors who started on last year’s team that lost to Lake Washington in the state semifinals, Tumwater has lost 12 seniors who started over the last two seasons.
“We’re kind of starting all over again,” Clay said.
With so many new faces, there were some who doubted how well Tumwater would do. But not Elijah, the only returning starter at pitcher.
“I’m not surprised,” Elijah said. “Everyone else didn’t expect us to do this well because we lost so many guys. Last year’s senior class was like a powerhouse. We’ve got some sophomores and juniors now who kind of got overlooked. I’m not surprised how well they’ve done. I know everyone else is.”
Tumwater is off to a 5-2 start, which includes an 11-4 win over R.A. Long and a 20-6 win against River Ridge.
When Elijah throws his last pitch for Tumwater this spring, he won’t be done with baseball. The 6-foot-4 senior will pitch at Bellevue Community College next year. To make sure he had a good senior year, Elijah has lifted weights hard for the past year, adding 50 pounds to boost his weight from 160 to 210 pounds. That’s added some pop to his fastball which is now in the high 80s.
Elijah’s athletic talents aren’t limited to catching the corner of the plate, striking out a batter. He was also the punter and place kicker on the T-Birds football team, making all-league and all-state the last two years. He was good enough to get a scholarship offer from the Air Force Academy. Initially, Elijah, who one day wants to be a pilot, accepted the offer.
“I was on it, then I realized the whole commitment, the whole military thing. I backed out,” Elijah said.
He said it’s a nine-year commitment to the Air Force.
“I wasn’t too into it,” Elijah said. “I want to fly. I don’t know if I want to go that route.”
So for now, Elijah is just hoping to fly high with the T-Birds as they try to reach the playoffs again.