Two years removed from bringing home a state championship, the veteran players of the Mercer Island baseball team are finding that measuring success can sometimes be a relative interpretation.
“[Coach] Woody has been talking a lot in practice about [how] once you taste that state championship and feel that glory of bringing a state championship back to Mercer Island, you want to repeat that as much as you can,” said senior captain and starting shortstop Jack Smith, one of the three remaining starters from the Islanders’ 2015 team, along with second baseman Noah Hsue and outfielder Alex Shanks. “We all were there … We know what it’s like, we know what it takes and we’re just trying to pass that along to the young guys as best we can.”
A state championship remains the goal for a Mercer Island squad that certainly has taken its program to new heights in each of its last two seasons. After winning the program’s first 3A state crown in 2015, the Islanders returned to the state tournament last spring, making back-to-back state tournament appearances for the first time in program history. The Islanders, who finished last season with a 20-5 overall record, fell to Southridge 11-1 in the opening round of the tournament.
Mercer Island wasn’t without hardware in 2016. The Islanders won their first KingCo 2A/3A league title since 2010 with a conference record of 16-2. This year, the Islanders want to take winning KingCo one step further, a goal that may be inspired by last year’s season-ending loss.
“One thing we want to do that we haven’t done yet is win the [KingCo] postseason tournament and be a No. 1 seed at regionals instead of having to go somewhere as a No. 4 seed and have to play a really good team in the first round [of the state tournament],” Hsue said.
Mercer Island coach Dominic Woody said while a state championship is always a goal, he primarily wants to see that the effort from his team is consistently there throughout the season.
“Coming off of last year, the one thing I want to do is make sure that we’re ready to put our best foot forward,” Woody said. “Regardless of what happens toward the end of the year, we can say, ‘Hey, we went out and gave it our best shot.’ And if we lose, it’s because we got beat that day and not because we were deficient in some way, shape or form.”
Mercer Island will return six starters in 2017, but will experience quite a changeover on the pitcher’s mound. The Islanders saw the bulk of their starting rotation graduate last spring. A total of six players from last year’s varsity roster went on to play collegiate baseball, including stalwart hurlers Lucas Chapman, Harrison Goonewardene and Peter Lopes. The trio accounted for 130 innings pitched out of the 165 total for the 2016 season. Fellow 2016 grad Andrew Pickles, a basketball commit who suited up at the University of California, Santa Barbara this year, accounted for another 18 innings on the mound last season.
Still, this year’s Islander lineup boasts five Division I commits, with three of the five being juniors. Smith is committed to play baseball at Washington State University next year and fellow senior captain Hsue is committed to the University of Washington.
Where pitching was a strong suit a year ago, the Islanders will now look to make some noise on the other side of the plate.
“[Hitting] will be pretty sound all the way from numbers one through nine in our lineup,” said starting outfielder Alex Shanks, a junior who is committed to Gonzaga. “I don’t think there is gonna be any gaps from a hitting standpoint.”
With Redmond dropping down to the 3A class this year, the KingCo 2A/3A league has reconfigured from six teams playing each conference opponent three times, to seven teams playing each conference opponent twice.
The Islanders expect to face stiff competition from the Kirkland area, with big matchups against the defending 3A state champion Lake Washington Kangs (7 p.m., April 12 at Island Crest Park; 7:15 p.m., April 28 at Lee Johnson Field) and the Juanita Rebels (4 p.m., March 31 at Lee Johnson Field; 4 p.m., April 17 at Island Crest Park). The Islanders also expect competitive league games against the rival Bellevue Wolverines (4 p.m., April 7 at Island Crest Park; 4:30 p.m., April 24 at Bellevue High School).
But team goals remain at the top. And with new faces taking the field this spring, Woody said he’s most eager to see who on his roster will surprise him the most.
“I’m excited to see how things go forward and see who’s gonna step up,” Woody said. “That’s always the exciting thing as a coach. You think you know who you can rely on. There’s always gonna be a few question marks. There’s always gonna be a couple positives, a couple negatives and you’re always excited to see how it’s gonna play out.”