By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
LAKE STEVENS — The Lake Stevens baseball team is used to playing the role of front runners, but last season the Vikings were anything but.
In 2012, Lake Stevens was loaded with talent. With seniors Dylan LaVelle, Anthony Blackie, Jake Nelson and Christian Gasca — among others — the Vikings finished the season 23-2 with a district championship and a trip to the 4A state quarterfinals.
With most of the players who played a key role on that team gone, Lake Stevens head coach Rodger Anderson didn’t know what to expect from his team in 2013.
Early in the season, things didn’t look good. The Vikings were just 3-6 and struggling to find their identity.
After a late-season surge, Lake Stevens won yet another district championship and advanced to state. Almost all of the players from that team are back this season and the Vikings can get used to being front runners yet again.
“Now we have a target on our back,” Anderson said. “So it’s going to be a lot harder. I read somewhere that someone said, ‘It takes talent to win a championship, but it takes character to repeat.’ That’s kind of what we’ve been preaching ever since the end of last year. Every single minute on the field needs to be a championship effort because people are going to be gunning for us now.”
Lake Stevens’ slow start a year ago had little to do with lack of talent. Most of the players on the team were being asked to contribute on varsity for the first time.
“It took us a while to just learn the guys and figure out who could do what,” Anderson said. “We were experimenting because we had lost so many people. It just took us a while to figure things out. And it took a while for some of our younger guys to believe in themselves.”
While most of them weren’t playing in 2012, they were learning. Anderson said the example that team set for the younger players in the program helped prepare them for when their day came.
Senior starting pitcher Taylor Shea echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“We’ve been around those guys a lot and we’re spitting images of them really,” Shea said. “I want to think that we can take what we’ve learned from the previous couple groups of seniors and propel us even further than that year.”
If the Vikings are to advance further than the 2012 team, they will need consistent performances from their biggest strength — their pitching staff.
And it all starts with the team’s ace, senior Branden Kelliher.
“He’s been working hard,” Anderson said. “I’m really excited to see him in a game situation because I know he had a lot of success over the summer.”
Anderson said Kelliher’s throwing motion is more “fluid” and he expects his control to be better than it has been is season’s past.
Kelliher finished last season with an 8-2 record, pitching 51 innings with a 2.61 earned-run average and 83 strikeouts.
While Kelliher gets a lot of the attention, it’s the rest of the staff that might decide just how far the Vikings can go.
“We definitely have a good staff,” senior catcher Matt Del Fante said. “A lot of high-school teams can’t say that. We legitimately have a pitching-staff and a rotation that is lights out.”
Kelliher and Shea give the Vikings two potent starters and Anderson said senior Corey Bullens is likely to take the third spot in the rotation.
The Vikings are not afraid to turn to their bullpen either. Sophomores Sam Pyzer and Jacob Eason, juniors Nick Hoskins and Skyler Swords and senior Jeff Sevey are all capable shutting the door on opponents when called upon.
“I kind of like the idea that everybody is looking at Kelliher, but we’ve got Shea and we’ve got quite a few other pitchers that are going to have really good years and going to open some eyes,” Anderson said.
Such a talented pitching staff helps make Del Fante’s job that much easier behind the plate.
“It’s definitely a lot of fun because you have complete confidence in your pitchers knowing that they’re going to hit their spot and knowing that they’re going to throw the right pitch at the right time to get the out,” Del Fante said. “All I basically had to do is get the sign and give it to the pitcher and they throw it and get an out.”
The Vikings impressive run late-season run came to an end quickly at state, losing to Olympia 12-1 in the first round.
Del Fante said the quick exit is even more motivation for this year’s team than the success that came before it.
“It definitely showed that once you get out of Wesco and get out of your district, there’s big competition,” Del Fante said. “What that basically told us was that we’ve got work even harder leading up to May and the playoffs to make sure we can compete with those guys and get those W’s at state.
“We really found out who we were last year throughout the entire season. We figured out our role — and now that we know that, we can go in with high expectations this year.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.