By David Krueger Herald Writer
Ray Ewing just wanted to give his team a place to play.
In the summer of 1979, the Marysville Pilchuck High School baseball coach recruited a group of athletes to build a baseball field at the 8-year-old high school.
“It was his vision. It wouldn’t have happened without him,” said Gary Ray, who played baseball for Ewing in the early 1980s. “Nobody said he had to do it. It was just (Ewing) saying, ‘You know what? It’s a beautiful summer. Why wouldn’t we do it?’”
After Ewing died in 2010, Ray began lobbying for his old coach to be recognized for his efforts.
Prompted by Ray, the Marysville School District formed a committee and, in early 2013, selected three individuals to be honored at a field-dedication ceremony.
That ceremony, delayed a year by rain, is scheduled to take place Saturday before the 1 p.m. varsity baseball game between Marysville Pilchuck and Marysville Getchell. The field will be christened “Memorial Field” so that deserving players and coaches can be honored for years to come, said Greg Erickson, the Marysville School District athletic director.
Plaques will be unveiled Saturday honoring the first three of those individuals: the two coaches who built the field nearly 35 years ago, and an MP athlete who had his time on the field cut tragically short.
These are their stories.
Ray Ewing: Creating a home field advantage
Ewing began his high school coaching career in 1973 at Pilchuck High School. At the time, the Chargers had to drive across town to use the field at Marysville High School, now Totem Middle School. Ewing wanted to give his team a field of its own.
Gary Ray doesn’t have fond memories of the area on the Pilchuck campus where the field was built.
“It was a bog,” Ray said.
Ray and several others helped Ewing put in drainage tiles, grass, a crushed-brick warning track and an electronic scoreboard.
“His vision was to bring our home-field advantage to our high school so we didn’t have to get in our cars and bus down to downtown Marysville,” Ray said.
After graduating from Meadowdale High School in 1965, Ewing attended the University of Washington on a baseball scholarship.
A left-handed pitcher, he moved on to the professional ranks, reaching as high as Class AAA in the Minnesota Twins’ system before retiring in 1972. His professional career gave him legitimacy and clout with high school players.
“Ray Ewing, especially, he really wanted to teach you about the game and how to play the game and be a student of the game,” said Paul Dockendorf, one of Ewing’s former players and now MP’s athletic coordinator. “He played pro ball, so he knew the ins and outs of baseball.”
From 1983-86, Ewing led the Tomahawks to three state tournaments in four years. They played in the Class 4A state semifinals in 1983.
Ewing was “an intense guy (who) could be fun, but he knew how to get his point across,” Ray said. Once, following a victory in which Ewing felt his team didn’t give a good effort, the players got a surprise at practice.
“There was a sheet in the locker room that said what the drills were for the day. The only thing that was on the board was two words: foul poles,” Ray said. “Running in the outfield from foul pole to foul pole, that wasn’t a good thing. It was 75 degrees and he ran us like crazy. He wasn’t happy that we played them so softly.
“We beat them the next day 14-2.”
Ray said Ewing demanded just one thing: Each player’s best.
“He just taught all of us that internal lesson that if you played your best, there’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Ray said.
Ewing was hired at Pilchuck in 1973 and continued to coach baseball after Pilchuck and Marysville high schools consolidated in 1976.
He retired in 2002. He had left coaching by then, but that didn’t keep him from being a fixture in the Marysville baseball — and sports — community.
“He was a faculty member after coaching and he went to everything,” Erickson said. “Every game of everything.”
Ewing died on Feb. 15, 2010. His memorial, held a month later at Marysville Pilchuck High School, was packed.
Steve Opel: Always a learning year
Ewing had plenty of help building the MP field. Much of that assistance came from his assistant coach, Robert Steven Opel.
“They were the beginning,” Dockendorf said of Ewing and Opel. “They both put hours and hours and hours of volunteer work into the facility. … They built that program to a very competitive level.”
Opel started his coaching career in Little League, which isn’t unusual for someone with three boys. But he was so enthusiastic, he started coaching even before his boys were old enough to play.
“He loved baseball,” said Erlayne Opel, Steve’s widow.
Opel eventually was recruited by the principal of Marysville-Pilchuck High School to be the junior-varsity baseball coach. Among the JV players Opel coached was his son Pat — albeit not for long. Pat spent just half a season on the JV before Ewing called him up to the varsity.
“Now that my dad’s passed, it was an absolute blessing being able to play for him,” Pat Opel said. “I didn’t do a full season with him in high school … but it was special. No doubt about it.”
Losing a good player to Ewing’s varsity was not a rare occurrence.
The 1980 Marysville-Pilchuck yearbook includes this notation about the junior-varsity squad: “… because of the experience and skill of younger players, Opel lost a lot of his team to varsity. Coach Opel coined the increasingly familiar phrase, ‘It was a learning year.’”
Pat Opel said his father “was an old-school guy” who stressed the fundamentals. Steve Opel, who taught history in the Marysville School District for 30 years, was well-liked by his players and students.
“He always had fun things to say. He was kind of known for his one-liners,” Pat Opel said. “I think all the kids enjoyed playing for him. I’ve heard nothing but good things.”
Opel coached alongside Ewing for 16 years. Ewing was a fixture at the Opel household, where he spent many an evening at the dinner table talking baseball with Steve.
“I remember being a sixth-, seventh-grader seeing the varsity (Ewing) and JV coach (Opel) sitting at my dinner table,” Pat Opel recalled. “I remember the two being around our house quite often. Ray was a young guy, my dad was an older guy. They were a good combination.”
Erlayne found herself married to a man who loved sports. Aside from coaching baseball, Steve was an announcer for Marysville Pilchuck football and basketball games for several years. The pair also had University of Washington football tickets.
“I enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed the sports,” said Erlayne, who attended most of her husband’s high school games. “I enjoyed the travel.”
The Opels met at Snohomish High School in the 1950s. Steve graduated in 1952 and Erlayne followed in 1955. The pair married in 1957 and soon after moved to Bellingham, where Steve attended Western Washington College of Education — now Western Washington University. He graduated in 1961 and went directly to work for the Marysville School District.
After he retired, Steve and Erlayne traveled the country — usually for sporting events.
“We traveled to Arizona a number of times for spring training,” Erlayne said. “We went to a lot of U-Dub football and baseball games. We went to Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado, California and all over for Washington sports. We did a lot of sports traveling. We both enjoyed it.”
Steve Opel died on March 2, 2007. A little over seven years later, his family will gather on the field he helped build to honor him.
“My entire family is honored over the fact that my dad is involved in this,” Pat Opel said. “He and Ray Ewing … started that Marysville Pilchuck program together.”
Brad Baunsgard: His presence is still felt
Brad Baunsgard was every parent’s dream: good student, good athlete, good friend.
“He was an outgoing guy, great personality,” said Scott Martin, Brad’s best friend. “He was a lot of fun to be around. He was one of those guys who was always just great for everybody. A guy everybody gravitated towards. Everybody really liked him.”
His American Legion baseball coach, Pat Opel, echoed those sentiments.
“He was a 4.0 student and a student on the baseball field,” Pat Opel said. “He was a sponge. Just a real neat kid. Brad was just a kid that you loved to work with because he listened to everything you said to him. … He was the ultimate teenager. Every parent’s dream of a teenager.”
Unfortunately, Baunsgard only got to represent the Tomahawks on the baseball diamond for one year. In the summer of 1994, right before his junior year, Baunsgard died in a boating accident on Ebey Slough, which runs just south of Marysville.
He was 16.
There is a memorial honoring Baunsgard at Ebey Waterfront Park with his name and the number he wore: 9.
Pat Opel coached Baunsgard the day of the accident. The Marysville Legion team played in a district-tournament game in Bellingham. Baunsgard was one of the team’s pitchers.
“I can’t remember if he pitched that day or not,” said Pat Opel, who served as a pallbearer at Baunsgard’s funeral. “We played at noon. It was a hot summer day in August. We won.”
After the game, Baunsgard, his father, Ken, and teammate Jason Nielsen went boating on Ebey Slough.
The news of Baunsgard’s death hit his teammates and coaches hard. The next morning, Opel and his players met at MP, the Legion team’s home field, prior to departing for their district game in Bellingham. Opel found the players in tears.
“It was a very emotional moment,” Pat Opel said. “We asked the kids, ‘Do you want to keep playing or stop playing? Whatever you do is right.’”
The team decided to honor Baunsgard’s memory by playing. The players dedicated the game and the season to “Number 9.”
So the team traveled to Bellingham and wound up scoring the go-ahead run on an RBI single with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning. Fittingly, the game-winning run was the ninth. Marysville beat Edmonds 9-8.
“We were all pretty rattled,” team member Aaron Pardee said. “We were all really emotional.”
Marysville moved on to play Everett in a game with another spectacular finish. Marysville scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game and won on a two-out RBI hit by Nielsen, clinching Marysville’s first state appearance.
Pat Opel can’t recall how many games Marysville won at the state tournament. What he does remember is traveling to Centralia and spending the weekend with Baunsgard’s parents, Ken and Vicki.
“It was tough. It was heavy-hearted,” Pat Opel said. “They did a moment of silence. … Just the fact that Brad’s mom and dad wanted to travel with us and spend four days with us seven to 10 days after their son died was huge to me. It was huge.”
Vicki Baunsgard said the trip provided a much-needed distraction.
“One of the guys said, ‘You’re coming aren’t you?’ We thought, ‘Yeah, I guess we are,’” Vicki said. “They really inspired us a lot by playing for Brad and wanting us to come. I guess that’s why we decided to go. It really kept our mind focused on something besides our grief.”
Brad Baunsgard’s inspiration didn’t end there. The team dedicated the following season to his memory and the players wore his number.
“We had a sign in the outfield wall with his No. 9 on it,” said Pardee, who, like Baunsgard, was a left-handed pitcher. “Every time we’d play, we’d run by the sign and touch it. A lot of people had No. 9 patches on their jerseys. His presence was definitely felt throughout the rest of our baseball careers.”
His presence continues to be felt in the Marysville community. Martin helped the Baunsgards organize the first Brad Baunsgard Memorial Golf Tournament soon after the accident. The tournament continued for 12 years and raised more than $50,000. The money went toward four scholarships for MP students.
While the golf tournament no longer exists, two of the scholarships are still awarded in Baunsgard’s name.
Martin said it’s important to keep Baunsgard’s memory alive, noting that the current MP students were not even born at the time of Baunsgard’s death.
“What Brad stood for was things that you want your kids to stand for,” Martin said. “You want them to make good decisions, have good friends and be good sons. Brad was all those things. When people look at that name, you want them to think about that.”
Martin, who first met Baunsgard when they played youth soccer together, said it’s appropriate for Baunsgard to be honored Saturday, both for what he and his father did for what will soon be known as “Memorial Field.”
“One of the things that I think is really fitting is the Baunsgard name is going to be there because his dad, Ken, spent so many hours working on that field, prepping the field and getting it ready for games,” Martin said. “A lot of the good qualities of that field his dad helped maintain.”
Vicki Baunsgard said it’s an honor for her son to be recognized along with Ray Ewing and Steve Opel.
“I was so excited to feel like someone was still remembering him and recognizing and honoring him,” Vicki said. “It was such a big part of our life. We spent a lot of time at that field. It’s real awesome. Especially to be in the company of Steve Opel and Ray Ewing. That’s a nice honor too, to be shared with such great people.
“It just gives me a feeling that Brad’s still remembered.”
David Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.