Snohomish High School baseball coach Nick Hammons has seen tremendous growth from his current group of seniors.
And it’s come despite facing the challenging circumstances that started the high school careers for many spring athletes from the class of 2023.
The COVID pandemic wiped out most of the first two seasons for the group, with its freshman year in 2020 being canceled before a game was ever played and the following season lasting just six weeks without a postseason.
While things were constantly changing in the world around them, Hammons said there was always one constant with this senior group.
“They’ve always had a chip on their shoulder,” he said.
“They’ve always thought that a lot of people have gotten opportunities that they haven’t. I guess that’s given them a burning desire to improve everyday.”
The hard work put forth in and outside of the season has been evident to Hammons and his staff, and it’s paid off already this spring for a group that has lofty expectations for itself.
The Panthers clinched the Wesco 3A/2A North title last week, the program’s first league championship since 2015, and they open Class 3A District 1 tournament play 2 p.m. Saturday at home against ninth-seeded Mountlake Terrace as the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
After a disappointingly abrupt exit from districts a year ago, Snohomish (16-4) aims to redeem itself by sending its senior-laden group off with a deep postseason run.
“Last year as a team we had high expectations and we were doing amazing, and then we just fell off,” senior pitcher/outfielder Brendan McKinley said. “To come back from that and have the season we’re having, adding a district title on top of that would just be amazing for these seniors. All of us have worked pretty hard to get to this point and we want to get that title.”
The Panthers were stellar in their non-league slate in 2022, posting a 6-1 record while outscoring opponents 45-15, but stumbled out of the gates in conference play after being swept in a two-game series with Arlington. Snohomish righted the ship after and ran off six straight wins, but a 3-3 record over the final six games left the team in a three-way tie for second in Wesco North. Ultimately, the Panthers, who entered districts with the best overall record at 15-6, ended up with the No. 9 seed due to a 9-5 conference record and faced a win-or-go-home game with fellow league runner-up Monroe, which ended the Panthers’ season with a 3-1 defeat.
“I think we all thought (we’d make it further),” said Hammons. “It was frustrating to lose that first game, but I think it only added to that chip on their shoulder and it took them into the summer ball season and offseason hitting the weight room and really developing their baseball skills. You’re seeing it all come together this year.”
What’s come together is a wire-to-wire league title for Snohomish, which never fell off the top line in the league standings after opening its conference schedule with a two-game sweep of Monroe.
The early sweep of the Bearcats provided the Panthers the early spark they needed. When the dust settled at the end of the regular season, it also led to Snohomish edging Monroe by one game for the league crown.
“It really set the tone for the season and we kind of rallied off that,” senior center fielder Nickolas Sakamoto said.
At the forefront of Snohomish’s success has been the efforts of a stellar starting pitching staff. Snohomish’s three starters all sport an earned-run average of 1.65 or lower and average more than one strikeout per inning. The team has surrendered more than three runs just three times and its 2.3 runs allowed per game ranks tops in all three of Wesco’s baseball leagues. And the excellence has come largely without Gonzaga-bound ace Kale Hammer, who underwent Tommy John surgery after just five innings pitched.
Seniors Jackson Weeks, Van Berman and McKinley have risen to the occasion with Hammer out. Weeks has a team-best 0.93 ERA over 30 innings and a 6-1 record. Berman leads the team with 43 1/3 innings pitched to go with a team-high 56 strikeouts, a 1.13 ERA and a 5-0 record. McKinley boasts a 1.65 ERA, a 3-1 record and is fanning 1.5 batters per frame over 34 innings pitched.
“I think the thing that we talked about at the start of the year is that when you get that opportunity, don’t waste it,” Hammons said. “A lot of guys have got a bigger role on the team and they haven’t wasted that opportunity.”
With three quality arms, Hammons finds himself in a welcomed position for the postseason.
“We have a three-headed monster that we can really rely on,” he said. “We know that if somebody doesn’t have it that day that we can go right to another guy. We feel like we have three aces.”
Hammons and teammates also praised the impact Hammer has continued to have as a leader in the clubhouse.
“It’s terrible what has happened to him, but the kid has absolutely responded in a very positive way and been our biggest cheerleader and the best teammate,” Hammons said. “He’s brought every guy together. … We wouldn’t be in this position without him.”
The Panthers feel just as confident in their offense as well. The lineup is long with six regulars hitting above .300 and nine with an on-base percentage of at least .400. It’s helped the team post 5.7 runs per contest while scoring four or more in 15 of 20 games.
“It’s pretty cool because no matter where we are at in the lineup, I think everyone is confident in whoever comes up to the plate,” said Berman, who’s hitting a team-best .395.
Snohomish hopes its stingy pitching staff and deep lineup leads to a storybook ending for the prep careers of its 13 seniors.
“We want to see a state title,” McKinley said, “but it’s one game at a time. I think we can go far.”