The Vikings were loaded last season with 13 seniors, including several pitchers and all eight position starters. Talented and experienced, they led Lake Stevens to a 23-2 record, a District 1 championship and a spot in the Class 4A state quarterfinals.
Next year's squad looks promising, too. Lake Stevens loses just three seniors off the current team.
But this season? When the Vikings began their schedule, they were young, inexperienced and hardly a favorite in the Wesco 4A race.
Then a funny thing happened. After sputtering much of the season -- "It was kind of like we'd win, lose, win, lose," sophomore shortstop Justin Brown said -- Lake Stevens is again the district champ heading into today's regional round of the Class 4A state tournament.
The Vikings face Olympia in a 1 p.m. game at Everett Memorial Stadium. With a win they advance to meet the Bothell-Kentwood winner (a 10 a.m. game) at 4 p.m. for a spot in next weekend's state semifinals.
According to longtime Lake Stevens coach Rodger Anderson, it was not supposed to be like this.
"We were just hoping to make the playoffs this year, to get some experience ... and then get ready for next year," Anderson said. "But to win a district championship, that's not really something we thought about."
The team's late-season surge "has been a very, very pleasant surprise," he said.
With a roster comprised largely of players promoted from last year's junior varsity, Lake Stevens took some lumps early in the season. Anderson and his coaching staff were using players in different positions "and trying to figure out who could do what," he said. "We knew we had some talented guys, but we just weren't sure where to fit them in."
"At the beginning of the season, I wasn't really sure (what to expect)," said junior pitcher and second baseman Branden Kelliher, one of the team's most experienced returning players. "But as the season went on, I started to get more hope. We were coming together ... and as time went on we just got better and better."
"(The coaches) wanted us to believe that we could achieve anything if we set our minds to it," senior left fielder Ryan Lian said. "But it took most of the season for us to really start believing it. But then once we did, we got on a roll."
The Vikings finished their regular season with a modest 11-9 record, but then won three nail-biters -- they defeated Kamiak 6-5, Edmonds-Woodway 3-1 and Jackson 7-6 -- to claim the district title.
And through it all, several of the team's youngsters blossomed into top varsity performers. Junior Corey Bullens, who pitches, plays first base and outfield, has a .465 batting average and .557 on-base percentage, both team highs. Junior catcher Matthew Del Fante is hitting .418 with a .528 on-base percentage. And Brown, who spent last year on the freshman team, is batting .417 with a .493 on-base percentage.
Kelliher, meanwhile, has become the team's ace, compiling an 8-1 record with a 2.30 earned-run average and 72 strikeouts in 46 innings.
For Anderson, this season has been every bit as rewarding as last year. The current Vikings "are some great guys," he said. "They're bright, they're fun and they work hard. It's a coach's dream.
"I don't think anybody expected this," he added, "but they've worked really, really hard to get to this point."
And if their 14-9 season record is less than amazing, well, who cares?
"If you're the underdog, people don't expect a lot from you," Lian pointed out. "But as long as we believe, then we can do anything."
"In the end, it's all about the team that gets hot at the right time," he said. "So why not us? Because it's not how you start (the season), it's how you finish."
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