Ask Milo Ames what he remembers most about his first two years as a member of the Black Hills High School baseball team and the senior responds rather quickly.
“A lot of losing,” Ames said. “Which caused a lot of anger for the coaches and the players.”
Despite featuring just four schools, the 2A Evergreen Conference has been the gold standard for the classification the last handful of years with Centralia, W.F. West and Tumwater all appearing in recent state championship games.
Centralia hoisted the state trophy last season, while the Bearcats defeated the Thunderbirds in an All-EvCo state championship finals in 2013.
The Wolves turned out to be the lone also-ran in a conference chalked full of state title contenders.
That is until last season when first-year head coach Todd Venable guided Black Hills to the regional round of the state tournament for the first time in program history.
“It was just awesome to be a part of that team,” said Ames, a first-team all-EvCo catcher last year, about the Wolves’ 2015 season. “It was the best baseball team that’s every played here.”
Ames and his teammates are striving toward adding to that legacy this year.
Midway through the regular season, Black Hills is eyeing another postseason push, and possibly a conference crown, as all four teams find themselves within one game of each other in the standings.
“This year, we definitely had a different feel and pulse within the baseball program,” Venabale said. “Last year everyone had to adjust a lot with a new coach coming in who they didn’t know. We definitely did things differently and there was a lot of good strong leadership from the senior class. This year, we now have guys who have been around the program, who have played at the varsity level. We also have some new and exciting players who are stepping up. It’s been exciting.”
The Wolves became the first team this season to defeat Centralia, besting the defending state champions, 3-1 on March 30. Black Hills has three conference games remaining against cross-town rival Tumwater, two against W.F. West and one more against the Tigers before closing out its regular season slate on May 4.
“I think we just need to work more as a team,” Ames said following the Wolves’ non-league loss to state-ranked Fife. “These last few games we’ve figured out what our weaknesses are and what we need to work on to improve. We have a lot of talent. This game is 90 percent mental.”
Black Hills collected the district’s third and final state playoff slot last year, winning three consecutive loser-out games, capped by a 7-6 victory over W.F. West, to secure a regional state playoff berth.
Their 2015 campaign came to an end in a 7-4 loss to Anacortes at regionals. Advancing farther is one of the squad’s many goals in 2016.
“What we did last year was set a new foundation. We were setting a new bar,” Venable said. “Our expectations are to improve on last year. We are looking for 13 wins. We are looking to advance past that round of regionals. I do think we can improve off last year. I don’t think that is an unrealistic goal.”
“The seniors who left turned this program around,” added Venable. “They left it better. The challenge this year is for this year’s seniors to say the same thing.”
Ames fully believes that can be achieved.
“I think we are a little more optimistic than we were at the beginning of last season,” Ames said. “A lot of players were initially closed minded to having a new coach, but we worked things out and made history. Now, we just want to improve on that.”
According to Ames, who is joined by fellow senior leaders Cole Lester and Tate Determan on the squad, last year’s success has not gone unnoticed among the student body, leading to much stronger support for the program.
“You can just see it with the fans we’ve had out. It’s doubled or tripled then what we’ve had the last few years,” Ames said. “We’ve seen more just overall support for our sport since last year’s baseball season. There’s a lot more pride in sports around here.
Ames was a captain on the Wolves football team this season which enjoyed its best regular season in school history before advancing to the state playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“I had some football coaches tell me, ‘Hey, you started this. We are feeding off what the baseball team did last year,’” Venable said. “We have some football players on the team. They are coming off the best run in school history. And now we are trying to just take that momentum from football right back.”