Natural talent can produce a premier athlete, but when talent meets commitment to excellence, leadership skill, advanced maturity and a relentless will to compete, the result is something special.
Those superlatives start to tell the story of Cascade senior Brett Gillis and what powered his standout senior baseball season.
The preparation began one day after Gillis, the Bruins’ starting quarterback, ended his 2017 football season.
“The next day after school the football team had gear turn-in,” Cascade baseball coach David Benson said. “(Brett) texted me he’d be a little late to the weight room because of it. After that, he was in there all three days a week every time up until (baseball) tryouts. He told me he got a gym membership and was working out on the weekends and other days, too. He was constantly going above and beyond, just a college athlete in a high school setting.”
When Gillis was a sophomore, he helped the Bruins reach the 4A state tournament quarterfinals. Last year Cascade won six games. Gillis desired a return to prominence for this season and offered a shining example of what it would take to do so through his leadership. On the field, he reaped the rewards of his offseason commitment.
Gillis, The Herald’s 2018 Baseball Player of the Year, was dominant — on the mound, at the plate and at shortstop.
The senior allowed only eight earned runs in 442⁄3 innings pitched, good for a 1.25 earned-run average. He struck out 64 batters, 1.43 per inning. He matched Cascade’s single-season batting record with a .500 average, including 13 extra-base hits. Benson said Gillis maybe made one error all season at shortstop.
“When it comes to the weight room stuff, coach Benson is always there to open it up and football coaches open it up,” Gillis said. “They are putting in their time to make our team better, so I feel like I owe it to them and to my teammates to work as hard as I can. … I can see the direct correlation with weight room and performance.”
Wesco competition bore witness, too. Gillis’ pitch speed moved from the mid-to-low 80s to the high 80s, low 90s, which Benson said made hitting Gillis a tall task.
Besides Gillis’ spike in velocity, his work with senior catcher Nicholas Klemp to spot pitches and attack was unmatched.
“He’s the ultimate competitor. (He has) that every-pitch mentality (of) ‘I am going to beat you,’” Benson said. “He attacks, attacks, attacks in everything he does. You can pencil him in to give you six innings every start. Being a pitcher myself, it’s fun to watch a player compete and give the team the best chance to win every start.”
Gillis’ ability never was more apparent than during Cascade’s biggest game of the season – a winner-to state matchup with Mount Vernon last month. The Bruins suffered a heartbreaking loss, but Gillis threw 6 2/3 innings, gave up no earned runs and struck out 14 hitters.
While Gillis saw improvements in pitch speed, his determination to improve his hitting, which Gillis said was his offseason top priority, paid dividends. His average shot up from .320 his junior year to .500. He matched 1997 Cascade graduate Jeff Anabel with the best average in school history and surpassed Bryan Ingram (1997) and Benson (2007), who hit .484.
“I definitely focused on hitting a lot,” Gillis said, “so to get to .500 was awesome for me. I just wanted to have a quality at-bat every single time. It’s awesome I was able to perform for my teammates. They are some of my best friends out there.”
But for as well as Gillis played for Cascade, his favorite memories and one of Benson’s top moments of his star senior illustrates the leadership and character Gillis delivered his club.
The past few years Cascade has played an annual tribute game to honor Michael Alcayaga, who died four years ago at age 16 following a battle with leukemia. The Bruins beat Jackson 7-6 with a walk-off win in the tribute game in April. Gillis said his double that helped contribute to the win was his favorite moment. He also loved the ‘grit chain’ – a gaudy gold chain with a baseball and a screw fashioned to it – that Benson would award a player after games for showing the most grit. Gillis won it several times and proudly showed it off.
“We’d always have someone wear it to a game,” Gillis said. “It was pretty cool.”
One of Benson’s favorite Gillis moments came last season when Gillis’ brother Brock Gillis was making his first appearance as a freshman pitcher in a season-opening game against Tahoma. Cascade was leading 4-2, but Brock gave up a walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“Obviously (Brock was) down,” Benson said. “It’s your first appearance, and you give up a walk-off home run, but Brett’s reaction speaks to his character as a brother and a baseball player. A lot of the guys were down, but I remember Brett immediately went to his younger brother, gave him a big hug and told him he will pitch in a lot bigger games. It’s something small, but for a 17-year-old to not be caught in the moment, it really stood out to me.”
Brett’s talent combined with his character is the main reason Benson believes Yakima Valley College found itself a gem in Brett, who admitted he’s carried a bit of a chip on his shoulder from not earning the recognition from college scouts that perhaps other area players have. But he’s excited for what’s to come in Yakima and won’t soon be forgotten for the impression he’s left on the Bruins’ baseball club.