While any sort of celebration is premature, this year's Granite Falls team just might have what it takes to get the program back to the state tournament.
The Tigers finished just behind Archbishop Murphy in the Cascade Conference standings and open the 2A District 1 tournament Saturday as the No. 2 seed from their league.
The season has been a progression and a growing experience for the Tigers, who have just one senior on their roster. When practice began in March, the team set a goal to place in the top three in its conference and qualify for districts.
After a 2-4 start to the season that included three losses to Archbishop Murphy, it looked like the Tigers might be in for another mediocre season — but they never lost sight of their goal.
Granite Falls won 10 out of its next 11 games to put itself in a position to challenge the Wildcats for the league championship and solidify a spot in the district tournament. The Tigers finished the regular season 12-6 in league and 13-7 overall.
Once the Tigers knew they had qualified for district, they re-evaluated their goals. They now have the state tournament on their radar.
“Of course (we want to make it to state), but I'm going to just say you play it one game at a time,” Granite Falls coach Doug Engstrom said. “I want them thinking about not just getting to state, but I want them to think about winning it because potentially I think we can. If we play all of our games errorless and we play good ball, then we can do it.”
Putting themselves in a position to be successful hasn't been easy for the Tigers. It has required hard work and several early mornings. Engstrom requires all of his varsity players to come in at 6:15 a.m. at least twice a week for 45 minutes of batting practice at the team's indoor hitting facility.
The extra time has paid off with a .301 team batting average and a .403 on-base percentage. The Tigers have three players hitting .371 or better: sophomore Greg Barnett (.371), junior Daniel Head (.381) and the team's lone senior, Riley Larsen (.388).
“One through nine (in the lineup) can do something,” assistant coach and former Granite Falls player Jared Walls said. “We've got speed, power and guys who can handle the bat. There are no holes really.”
Head leads the team with three of its five home runs.
“He's our power hitter and he can hit the long ball,” Larsen said. “He drives in the runs when we need it, so we can count on him.”
The hard work that has been the key to the Tigers' success began long before the season opener.
“You don't get to where you're at through only two and a half months,” Engstrom said. “You've got to put in work throughout the year, and these guys do.”
Added Larsen: “Everyone has been stepping up the way they've needed to. Everyone has been coming in (for morning hitting). No one has been slacking really — coach has been pretty tough on us, but he's been making it where we've been staying together and not giving up on anything.”
Putting in extra work isn't something new for the Tigers. For several of them, it started when they were young.
“I think a lot of their learning has come in other organizations and select programs,” Engstrom said.
Many of the Granite Falls started Little League at a young age and moved on to select programs.
“Their parents put them in good positions to get good training,” Engstrom said, “and I get the luxury of trying to put it all together for them.”
Things started to come together for the Tigers when they won 10 out of 11 — bookending a loss to Cedarcrest on April 14 with two five-game winning streaks.
“(The winning streak) helped because you've got a little bit more flexibility with your pitching,” Engstrom said. “You aren't under stress as much. If you get ahead in some games, you have opportunities to slide other guys in and not overdo arms.”
While Engstrom tries not to overuse his pitchers, his starters have been known to throw a lot of pitches — most of the time because they don't want to leave the game.
Looking at the statistics, it's easy to understand why Engstrom often times will let his starters go the distance. Larsen leads the way with a 4-2 record and a 1.20 earned run average in 52? innings. Junior Chris Gentry is 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 37? innings and sophomore Greg Barnett is 3-1 with a 2.24 ERA in 25 innings. Larsen has thrown five complete games and Gentry has thrown four.
“I think in baseball, pitching is basically everything,” Gentry said. “If you have good bats and no pitching, you still aren't going to win any games.”
Sophomore Griffin Chapman does most of the catching and has also played a pivotal role for the Tigers. Engstrom allows Chapman to call his own game and Chapman's strong throwing arm keeps most teams from trying to steal.
Whatever happens in the postseason, Engstrom has enjoyed seeing his team's commitment throughout the season
“This year's team is just a pleasure to coach,” Engstrom said. “It's just nice going to practice knowing that they're going to be there and that they're reliable. It's fun.”
Aaron Lommers cover prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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