CHEHALIS — Fisher Wassell woke up Saturday morning wanting two things.
First, the senior wanted to work on his swing, so he and his father Casey went out to the field at Toutle Lake to get some last-minute practice before driving to the Ducks’ 2B District IV championship game at W.F. West High School against Forks.
Second, he wanted to make the play to end the game. And Wassell did just that, corralling an easy grounder off the bat of Dalton Kilmer to make the final out in a 2-1 win to seal the Ducks’ undefeated, title-winning season.
“I wanted to make the last play,” Wassell said. “And it did happen. I have the ball still. It feels great to have. Just thankful for all of the things that happened with this team.
“It seems like we’re all brothers and family basically. We grew up playing ball, almost all of us with each other from little league to now.”
For his part, the adrenaline woke Jackson Cox up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. Staring down the biggest game of his high school career, the Ducks’ junior ace just couldn’t sleep, and woke up with his heart rushing.
Cox’s pulse didn’t slow down all game long, and the University of Oregon-commit pitched like it, working his way furiously through a Forks lineup that just could not touch him.
“When he’s dominant, you usually know that we’re going to take it,” Wassell said. “Me and Ryder (Moss) talked yesterday, and we were like, ‘If Jackson’s throwing strikes, it’s in the bag.’”
From the start, Cox threw strikes at a near-obscenely frenetic pace. He jumped out ahead 0-2 on Kilmer to start the game before the Forks leadoff man clipped a piece of a ball to send it foul, then forced a routine pop-out. The second Spartan to the plate started off 0-2, took one ball, then swung through a fastball. The third Forks batter was the third man to start off with two quick strikes, then wound up frozen on strike three.
And the pace didn’t slow down as Cox worked his way into the game. In fact, it got faster, and more and more consistent early.
“When he throws his bullpens, he’s always working fast,” said freshman Connor Cox, his brother and catcher. “That’s the way I like to catch him. I know that’s his pace and I have to work with it.”
In his first trip through the Forks lineup, Jackson Cox got to 0-1 on every single batter and threw just one ball, giving up one hit and striking out six. The junior wouldn’t fall behind 1-0 in a count until two batters into the fourth inning; that plate appearance for Trey Baysinger was also the first time Cox got into a two-ball count.
When it was all said and done, Jackson Cox had faced 28 batters and thrown 23 first-pitch strikes. He only threw three balls in a count twice all game long.
“Throwing first-pitch strikes gives me confidence because then I have more opportunities to throw my offspeeds so I’m not just a fastball pitcher,” he said.
The Spartans threatened for the first time all game in the top of the fourth, when a catcher’s interference call, a walk, and an infield single loaded the bases with one out. Then, Cox buckled down to a whole new level, getting one strikeout looking on four pitches before sending the Spartans back to the field with a three-pitch thank-you-very-much punchout to end the inning.
Cox finished with 14 strikeouts against a Forks order, jumping ahead, bearing down, and making a lineup that had averaged over 11 runs per game have to be forced into the batter’s box at times by the home plate umpire.
“The umpire was having to tell the guys to step in the box,” Connor Cox said. “They were trying to step out, and he was like ‘He’s ready, have one foot in the box.’”
Forks’ lone run came in the top of the sixth, when Cox hit Baysinger and the Forks third baseman got to third base on a wild pitch and a balk. Cox then skipped a pitch past his brother to the backstop, and while Connor’s throw back to Jackson beat Baysinger to the plate, the umpire made no call. Baysinger realized what was happening before Cox did and dove back to get a hand on the plate and was called safe.
Then with the bases empty, Cox struck out three straight Spartans without throwing a pitch out of the zone.
“It’s still a one-run game, but I wasn’t worried at all. If it was tied and a runner on third, I still wouldn’t worry because I know Jackson’s one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen, and he’s going to do what he needs to do,” Connor Cox said. “I’ve got the confidence in him as a brother, too, that he’s going to go do it.”
What that run did do was make the tiny bit of insurance the Ducks had gotten earlier loom that much larger.
Toutle Lake took the lead off the bat in the bottom of the first, when Zach Swanson hit a leadoff single, went to second on a wild pitch, and scored on a throwing error. Cox pitched the next three frames with a one-run lead before the Ducks could manage anything else against Forks’ Carter Windle, with a two-out rally in the fourth bringing a run home on a bases-loaded walk to Swanson.
The only thing that could have gotten in Cox’s way — aside from a controversial call at the plate, apparently — was the pitch count. The slight jams in the fourth and the sixth put his count at 97 going into the seventh, and a four-pitch at-bat to lead off the inning put him in a tight spot: he had three pitches to get the second out of the inning, or else he’d have to leave the mound without getting a chance at a third.
So the junior bore down on Ryan Rancourt with a three-pitch barrage of fastballs, putting him at 104 total pitches on the day and giving him one shot at a complete game.
He only needed two pitches to do it, getting out in front 0-1 one final time before getting the Forks leadoff man to bounce one right at Wassell for the simple force, sparking a jubilant celebration by the Ducks’ players along the first-base line.
“He was definitely a fierce competitor,” Johnson said.
The district title is Toutle Lake’s first since 2016. Acknowledging the much shorter season that was played in 2021, it’s the first undefeated team Johnson has coached since his tenure in the shadow of Mount St. Helens began in 1997.
And the scariest part about this flock of Ducks? Pretty much everybody will be back in 2022. Ryder Moss is set to graduate, possibly along with Wassell — a 17-year old senior currently appealing to get an extra year. Aside from those two, Johnson will return seven starters, including all of his pitching from a staff that tossed shutouts in half of its games and finished the year allowing just over a run and a half per contest.
“Up and down with our pitching, it’s definitely a coach’s dream to have the kind of depth that we had,” Johnson said.
Jackson Cox will be a year older and stronger, with one more season to lead the Ducks. Zach Swanson will have a year’s worth of experience at the high school level — so will Connor Cox behind the plate and as one of Toutle Lake’s main options to close. And Camden Wheatley will be back for another season to add a fourth arm that would be the No. 1 option at many a 2B school.
With no State tournament, the Ducks will settle for their District crown, and the discussions will begin as to what they could have done against the rest of the best from around Washington. But next year, they may get the chance to continue with largely the same squad — which has not lost a game in over two calendar years — and prove their arguments on the biggest stage.
“None of it can come without hard work,” Johnson said. “But as long as people are going to continue putting in the time, then obviously the sky’s the limit for these guys.”