The NWAC Baseball Tournament has been a mainstay of Memorial Day weekend festivities in Longview for four decades, except this year COVID-19 took that tradition away from players, coaches, media, and fans all the same.
Curiously, this year’s drastic turn toward the unprecedented had more in common with the origins of the tournament at David Story Field than most people realize.
“Actually, the first year that LCC was supposed to host was 1980, but of course that didn’t happen because Mt. St. Helens blew up,” noted Kirc Roland, LCC athletic director. “So that’s pretty weird that here we are 40 years ago and we’re canceled again.”
The championship game of this year’s tournament would have been played on Monday night as the traditional nightcap to Memorial Day. And this was supposed to be the year that the Red Devils put their names in the record books. Again.
The Lower Columbia College baseball team has managed to snag the last three NWAC championships and this year they were determined to make it four in a row. It was a tall task, to be sure, but it was also an outcome that skipped the realm of possibility and resided in the alternate dimension of reasonable likelihood.
Since NWAC baseball championships were first placed in 1947 the Red Devils have won 14 titles, including three in a row from 1995-97, and again from 2017-19. The only team to win more than three titles in a row is Yakima Valley, which won four in a row from 1952-55, and a staggering six straight championships from 1957-62.
A tournament win this year would have catapulted all Red Devils, former and current, into the all-time greats conversation. It also would have given head coach Eric Lane a third straight championship that would have matched the mark of legendary LCC skipper Kelly Smith. Lane was an assistant under Eddie Smith with the 2017 championship team before taking over the following season.
Not that Lane was taking anything for granted in a game as fickle as baseball.
“I think it’s human nature to think that if it’s happened a few times in the past, then you think it’s going to be given to you,” Lane noted. “We talk about championships. That’s our ultimate goal, but we always talk about the process and how we’re going to get there.”
That task is always easier said than done when you’re working with the mercurial personalities of 18 and 19 year old student athletes. With 25 new players on the roster this season, Lane knew it wasn’t simply going to be a plug-in-and-play type of scenario. Still, he was impressed with the gusto that his team approached the season with right up until the carpet was pulled from beneath their cleats.
“It’s too bad. Obviously there’s got to be a lot of things that go your way to win a championship, and who knows if that would have happened, but I sure was proud of the way the guys worked between Labor Day and whenever the season was canceled,” Lane said. “You always hope to have that feeling in the fall. There’s been some years where we didn’t have that feeling and we were still able to win it. You just never know.”
But the NWAC baseball tournament is not only special to the boys in blue and red, and sometimes camouflage. The diamond spectacle has become something that people depend on in The Planned City.
Following the ash and lahar related cancellation of 1980, LCC was able to make up for lost opportunity by claiming the 1981 championship on their own turf. Again though, that title came with a strange set of circumstances as a relentless rainstorm washed out the actual championship game, over, and over again. Having run out of time and days for makeup games the Red Devils were ultimately crowned champions due to the fact that they were the only remaining undefeated team.
Then in 1984 a Scott Carnahan led LCC team again kept the trophy at home when they defeated Centralia College 10-0 in the title game. That series sparked a run where the tournament came to Longview every other year. In 1986, the Red Devils wound up fourth on their home field but they failed to place in 1988.
The Steve Farrington era got off to a hot start in 1990 when LCC defeated Walla Walla in front of their home fans and the Devils repeated that home field feat in 1992. Then, in 1995, the infamous Kelly Smith took over the storied program and got right to work keeping standards sky high with titles in 1995, ‘96, and ‘97.
“Not a bad start,” Roland quipped in jest. “What was cool about that team was that Kelly got hired late and he basically brought on a bunch of mutts from around here and then they just went out and played like crazy and won back-to-back-to-back.”
The Red Devils made it back to the tournament on their home field in 2002 but didn’t place. Then, in 2005, Lower Columbia College began hosting the NWAC baseball tournament year in and year out and the Red Devils marked the new tradition by again winning a title on their home field.
Roland noted that he’d convinced Longview’s mayor at the time, Mark McCrady, to attend the penultimate game in order to light off the celebratory fireworks after the final out. That plan nearly went off the rails though when closing pitcher Jared Joaquin appeared to strikeout the final batter of the game only to have the umpire step out from behind and call a balk.
A preemptive fireworks show would have caused a painfully awkward delay in the game and would have certainly irritated the baseball gods. But the good Mayor is no stranger to the oddities of baseball, especially umpires, and held his fire long enough to avoid such a boondoggle. Subsequently, Joaquin punched out the next batter and the Red Devils wound up champions again.
“I was more afraid of Kelly Smith jumping down my throat on that one than anything,” Roland admitted. “Luckily Mayor McCrady had the instinct and held off on it and then was able to torch them afterward.”
The 2006 season wasn’t as kind to the home team, however, as they fell to Columbia Basin in what has become known as “The Rain Series.” Following a set of rain delays and postponements the championship game between LCC and Everett was pushed back from its normal Monday slot to a Tuesday night affair. The Devils, who came out of the loser’s bracket, claimed victory after 11 innings in the first contest but Everett was able to hang on for a win in the 12th inning of the “what-if” game in order to take the title away from Story Field.
LCC then qualified to play on their own field in the NWAC tournament again in 2007, 2008 (2nd place), and 2009, before winning another title in front of their fans in 2010 with a sterling 40-5 overall record.
The 2011 rendition of the Red Devils placed second in the tournament with a loss to Bellevue and then came back for a third place finish in 2012 that was highlighted by “The Catch” hauled in by outfielder Derrick Salberg of Kelso. That catch, which saw Salberg fly over the short leftfield fence, sealed a must-win victory for the Devils and made Salberg an instant celebrity. He even wound up with a seat at the ESPYs award show for his efforts.
After a strange two-year absence from the tournament in 2013-14, LCC again kept the trophy for themselves when they defeated Mt. hood in 2015 with Eddie Smith at the helm. The Red Devils then took fourth place in 2016 before beginning their run of three consecutive titles the following year.
All of that tradition was rudely interrupted this year, not by a volcano or even spring showers, but by a wicked virus.
According to Coach Lane it’s not hard to sell the merits of the NWAC baseball tournament to those who’ve never been lucky enough to attend.
“As a program here at LCC, I think we do a really good job of running the tournament. I just think that for a junior college and kind of a smaller town the atmosphere is just really neat,” Lane said. “Recruiters that come in from the East Coast, when they come over and recruit the NWAC tournament they say that our atmosphere as junior college is really up there with the best. They say it’s pretty unique.”
The fact that his team always has the home field advantage, so long as they earn the right to be there at all, certainly doesn’t hurt Lane’s perception of the tournament. However, he insists it’s not all rainbows and fortuitous homer calls as the host team.
“I think anyone in our situation would say there’s a little bit of an advantage, but you can also look at it as a disadvantage too,” Lane said.
Specifically, he noted that his players have to attend classes for two more days than the other teams while also working as event staff for the tournament in between games. His favorite tournament, of course, is anyone where the Devils stay on the top side of the bracket.
“If you keep winning you get to keep playing at night with the big crowd,” Lane explained.
Last year against Everett in the title contests the Red Devils needed a bit of good fortune to walk away winners. That break came with one out in the final inning and a two-run lead in hand but runners on second and third base. When a ball was smoked down the third base line it looked like two runs would score easily, but Drew Barlow snagged the screaming-mimi from his position at the hot corner and promptly hopped on third base to record the championship clinching double play.
The call was so close that referring to the action a bang-bang play is a disservice to that term. Even Lane admits he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
“It was a really tough call. In fast motion from my angle, I thought he was out for sure. But I asked Drew Barlow if he had him before the replay and he said, ‘Don’t worry Coach, I had him by at least three feet,” Lane said with a laugh. “I watch it every couple weeks and I kind of go back and forth on it, probably based on what kind of mood I’m in. That’s just part of the game I guess.”
This year’s LCC team included sophomores like Shane Jamison, Chase Matheny, Nick Jennings, Eli Shubert, Kaden Vanderwerf, Broc Selstrom, Tommy Davis, Dakota Hawkins, and Alex Brady who were hoping to repeat. Like those players who were sent home from the field and told not to come back, having a Memorial Day pass without a baseball field to manicure was a strange occurrence indeed.
“It was weird not being around that tournament this weekend. I didn’t even know what to do to be honest with you,” Roland said. “There’s just so many volunteers who give up their Memorial Day weekend every year. One that really jumps out is Dave Andrew. He and I have been working that tournament for 30 years.”
Andrew is the overseer of the press box including official scorekeeping, scoreboard operations, and public address announcements. He also occasionally sits in on radio, television, and web broadcasts. He also used to be the secret source who let Kelly “King of the Tarp” Smith know when it was time to pull the tarps on the field since rain storms typically hit his west Longview home before they reached David Story Field.
Andrew, who also coaches with the LCC softball team, says that local community support has been instrumental to the sustained success of the NWAC baseball tournament in Longview.
“If you’re a baseball fan it’s just a really good place to go to. It’s wood bat. They’re good players. There’s only one field, and it’s just all about the baseball,” Andrew explained. “We just have a really loyal group of baseball/sports fans, to the point where you can almost look down the line to a certain spot and know who’s going to be there.”
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