Sometimes a singular incident can take a team over the top.
For Kalama’s baseball program, making the state semifinals was just that. Kelso is working down the same path following a 3A state championship game appearance and a fairy tale postseason. Both squads didn’t look great in April, but something changed and things came together. Now, the bar is raised for both programs.
“Our leaders stepped up,” Kelso coach Tom D’Aboy said. “I think it was guys individually and collectively owning what their role was. So this year, that first week, we’ve really been talking about owning your role, being a great teammate, and representing our program the right way and working really hard.”
While Kelso is restocking after it graduated a senior-heavy class, the Chinooks have a good chance to make a deep postseason run once again.
“It’s huge, all the returners, the upperclassmen, they have a lot of experience in leadership roles and that’s going to be important,” Kalama pitcher Tommy Brandenburg said. “We’re really excited about our potential this year.”
Brandenburg hit a walk-off three-run home run against Wahkiakum last season which sent the Chinooks to the state final four despite being an overwhelming underdog.
That swing changed it all. Kalama wasn’t supposed to win that game, not against the Central 2B League champion Mules, a squad which held realistic state title ambition.
“You can use it as a coaching moment, a way of reflection,” Kalama coach Brandon Walker said. “Whenever we’re down, it’s always cool to be able to use something like that. Last year we lost a game against Toledo that we weren’t supposed to lose during that time. And situations like that helps you become a better team if you’re able to use it in a positive way.”
Wahkiakum had Kalama’s number the past few years. Even when Kalama was playing its best ball, the Chinooks weren’t logging wins. Walker recalled some of the tougher games on the schedule last season, and retrospectively realized many of them were far from gimmes. That’s prompted opportunity for growth.
Kelso’s year shared a few similarities.
The Hilanders struggled at times in April, and they’re among the first to observe as much. Four consecutive losses to open the season, and two against 2A schools. Then a few wins packaged with a few more losses. Consistent was not a way to describe Kelso baseball.
The tide began to shift, though, and Kelso won its first bi-district game against Stadium before falling to Gig Harbor in the next round. It entered consecutive loser-out games against Prairie and Timberline, then the Scots beat Bonney Lake 5-2 and secured the fifth seed from District 4, and with it, a state berth.
In a rematch against Gig Harbor, the Hilanders earned redemption with a 7-4 win, then trampled O’Dea 9-0. A 5-4 win over Edmonds-Woodway in Pasco gave them the right to play for a state title.
It ultimately ended in an 11-6 loss to Southridge, but the statement was made and the bar was raised.
“Anytime you have run like that in the state tournament, into the state championship game, expectations are going to be raised,” D’Aboy said. “But as far as our coaching staff and our players go, we have high expectations at all times.”
D’Aboy praised the energy and leadership the team showed during the first week of practice, and is hoping the Hilanders can get the ball rolling in the right direction sooner than later.
Kalama has stepped up the pace of practice to start the year, and with all but three players returning from last year’s squad, the kids feel they can build. More, though, Walker has high hopes for a freshmen class that helped play a notable role in fall and winter sports.
Kalama is looking to continue moving its program skyward, and this year, has the most depth Walker can remember.
The Mules were right where Kalama and Kelso are just a few years ago, and sustained their success with a mix of talent, and positive thinking.
“A lot of it is just passing the torch,” Wahkiakum coach Marc Niemeyer said. “Each year the seniors have done a fantastic job of setting expectations and just passing the torch down.”
After the season, the Mules passed out shirts that read “rosters change, but our expectations don’t.”
Niemeyer said the expectations are a critical part of the team’s success and that it started, in large part, with the emergence of leadership.
“Leadership guys saying ‘I’m excited for practice, and never ever having a negative comment about ‘Ah, I don’t want to practice today,’” Niemeyer said. “There was a lot of training around that. And there was another part where all of our kids would go home and talk to their parents.”
Those talks were designed to help shape the conversations about Wahkiakum baseball, and detract from anything negative about the program at home, and in the stands.
The bar was raised for Wahkiakum three seasons ago, and now, Kalama and Kelso seem to be on shared ground.