EVERETT – It was the baseball version of a facelift.
When Scott Watson became head coach of the Mariner High School baseball team in 2004, he vowed to start over. The Marauders had won just 14 times in 58 tries over the previous three seasons. Along the way, they’d become one of the weakest squads in the Western Conference South Division.
Watson, a Tennessee native who played college baseball at NCAA Division-III Maryville College near Knoxville, faced an intimidating task. But despite low turnout and a rough start his first season, he sensed Mariner players yearned for structure, feedback and, of course, ever-elusive success.
Watson’s overhaul was so sweeping, he even replaced Mariner’s uniforms. And, for more than mere cosmetic reasons, the Marauders have enjoyed a fresh start.
Mariner (3-4 in the Wesco South, 4-5 overall this spring) lost its first nine games in Watson’s inaugural season. Even then, however, players sensed improvement was within reach. “Everybody bought in,” Mariner catcher Braden Degamo said, “and it’s been like that ever since.”
That commitment has helped Mariner rise from sub-mediocrity to solid challenger. After finishing 4-14 in 2004, the Marauders were a respectable 9-11 in 2005. They’ve gone from losing by an average of 4.2 runs per game to just 0.2 this season. Most notable is their defensive improvement: Mariner has allowed 3.2 runs per game in 2006, compared to 6.7 in 2004 and 7.1 in 2003.
“If you get on the field and you can’t play defense, you look really sloppy,” said Watson, who was a junior-varsity coach at Mountlake Terrace for five years before he came to Mariner. “So the first thing we did was try to get a defensive scheme going. It was a big learning curve.”
“He had to teach us the game, basically,” Mariner senior Ryan Otto said.
That meant breaking baseball skills down to their most basic elements. Watson designed longer, more intense practices that stressed fundamentals – especially defense – and encouraging results followed. Mariner won its first three games last season (after winning just four times the entire previous year) and the Marauders earned landmark victories last April over league champion Mountlake Terrace and Kamiak, a district playoff qualifier. Otto was the winning pitcher in both triumphs.
“That was a really big moment,” Otto said of the win over Terrace, which was 15-3 in division play. “We were all pumped. … It was just insane. We weren’t expecting to win.”
Thanks to Watson’s jolt of discipline and enthusiasm, victories no longer elicit such shock.
“These guys work hard out here,” Watson said. “I believe that they believe they can win. That’s definitely progress.”
Otto said the revamped Marauders have a new slogan, one that would have seemed ridiculous two years ago: “Losing’s not an option.”
“You have to play with passion,” Otto explained. “You have to go into every game knowing that you’re not going to lose.”
One lesson coach Watson shared with Mariner last week particularly inspired Degamo. “He told us, ‘It’s important to win, but it’s imperative to compete.’ … It’s all about our minds. If our minds are set straight, then we can (succeed).”
Mariner has a realistic chance to advance to the district playoffs this season, but sophomore pitcher/infielder Travis Rush is more focused on enjoying every minute: “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Rush, who last month threw a no-hitter against Everett, credits Watson with resurrecting Mariner.
“He expected a lot more out of us and had higher hopes,” Rush said. ” … He wants us to win, and he’ll do anything to help us achieve that.”