By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
EVERETT — Since becoming the head baseball coach at Everett Community College in 2002, Levi Lacey has helped take the program to new heights.
The Trojans won 30 or more games six times in the last decade, 29 games three other times, and have a dandy .682 winning percentage in those 10 years. EvCC has reached the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges playoffs in four of the past eight seasons, and finished third a year ago. And as a producer of top pro prospects, the Trojans are doing just fine with 16 draftees in Lacey’s tenure, including four alums currently on major league rosters.
But until this season there was one thing EvCC had never done — reach No. 1 in the NWAACC’s weekly rankings.
That changed a few weeks ago when the Trojans hit the top spot on the preseason poll for the league’s 28 teams from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. EvCC, which was still first on the season’s second poll, was also third in a ranking of West Coast community college teams, which includes some of the elite programs in California.
Ask Lacey about the high rankings and he will tell you, yes, he is pleased. “But now we have to live up to it,” he pointed out.
Specifically, he went on, the No. 1 NWAACC ranking “doesn’t mean anything in terms of where we’re going to end up this year. But it does mean a lot in terms of where we started as a program. You don’t build a powerhouse baseball program overnight, and being in the same area as (top rivals) Edmonds, Bellevue and Skagit (Valley), it hasn’t been easy.
“So to get that No. 1 ranking, we’re proud of it. We’re not going to sit back and coast to a championship, but it sure feels good to get some accolades and respect from the other teams around the Northwest.”
His players agree.
The top ranking “is an honor,” said freshman third baseman Dylan Lavelle, a 2012 graduate of Lake Stevens High School. “It means we have a big target on our backs, but I love that. I love having teams chasing after us rather than us chasing after teams. And with the team we have this year — the pitching staff, the hitting and the defense — we have a really good shot at winning it all, so I’m excited.”
Sophomore shortstop Max Whitt, a 2010 Granite Falls grad, said “it’s real nice being No. 1, but we’ve still got to come out and be prepared.” Everett CC’s ranking means the Trojans are facing “No. 1 pitchers all the time … so every single game is going to be hard to win,” he added.
In recent years, EvCC has won primarily with pitching. The Trojans have a strong mound staff again this season, ranking third in the NWAACC with a 2.25 team earned run average through 20 games. But they are even better at the plate this season, ranking first in team batting average (.333) and runs per game (8.8).
Sophomore first baseman Daniel Orr from Kingston leads the team in hitting (among regular players) with a .407 batting average (10th in the NWAACC) and 19 RBI (tied for fourth). Five other regular players are batting over .300.
Lacey credits hitting coach Cody Atkinson, a former EvCC player, for the team’s dramatic offensive improvement. Atkinson, who is assisted by Curt Nelson, another ex-player, “is the best hitting guy we’ve had in the last 10 years,” Lacey said. “He’s really been making a difference for us.”
The team’s top pitcher is sophomore left-hander Jo Jo Howie of Everett, a graduate of Bellevue Christian High School, who has been close to perfect in the young season. Howie has pitched in four games, won three with no losses, has 19 strikeouts in 21 innings, and has yet to give up a run, earned or unearned.
The Trojans opened their league season with four games against Skagit Valley last weekend, winning three, to push their overall record to 15-5. But the league mark is the important thing since the top two teams in each of the four divisions advance to the NWAACC playoffs.
And for all the excitement of a No. 1 ranking, an NWAACC title is the season’s real prize.
“It’s the one thing that’s missing for us,” Lacey said. “We win every year, but (people say), ‘Where’s the championship?’ So that’s the one missing piece. It’s not easy to get and a lot of things have to line up, but this is the best club we’ve had in our time here … and it’s our turn.”
“Our expectations are high,” agreed sophomore pitcher Aaron Hatch, a 2011 graduate from Monroe High School. “We just have to keep working hard and getting better every day.”
“I don’t want to jinx ourselves, so knock on wood,” added Lavelle, “but we’ve got the team. Our (lineup) is remarkable, we play the game hard and we have a lot of people who want to win. We have the talent and the ability for a No. 1 ranking, and now we just need to play like it.”