RICHLAND — Teams aren’t supposed to do what the Cashmere baseball squad did this season. They just aren’t.
Last season, the ultra-talented, senior-laden Bulldogs were expected to win the 1A state championship, and they did. But entering this season, Cashmere faced no such expectations.
After all, head coach Jeff Carlson was forced to replace eight starters from a year ago with players that had no varsity experience.
It’s not uncommon for teams to win back-to-back titles. Programs that do so, however, usually accomplish the feat with the same key core of star players on both teams. The Bulldogs had no such core this season, so the logical thinking went something like this: They can’t possibly contend for another title this season, let alone win one, can they?
It turns out that they could. And they did.
Cashmere beat Montesano 8-4 on Sunday at Richland High School for its third state title in four years. The victory put the finishing touches on what could very well go down as one of the best so-called ‘rebuilding’ seasons in recent memory.
“All of (our state championships) have been very special,” Carlson said. “But what I’ll remember about this one is the doubters. We exceeded all expectations a long time ago. The kids believed in themselves and made this happen.
“After we won last year, we sighed with relief, knowing how good we were (and the external expectations). This year, the only people that believed we could do it were in our dugout.”
What the new group of Bulldogs lacked in varsity experience, they made up for with their raw talent. Carlson’s sage advice surely helped them along the way to grow and mature and players.
But the most critical component of the Bulldogs’ latest championship is the fact that their players never let anybody tell them that they couldn’t win a state title.
“The credit for that goes to the former players,” Carlson said. “They built and instilled a belief to win in these kids’ minds.”
Before joining the varsity squad, the Bulldogs’ players were immersed in the program’s winning culture. They learned that winning is not something that should be hoped for. They watched the players that came before them, how they conducted themselves, and how they prepared to win big game after big game after big game.
Five of Cashmere’s players have older brothers that won championship rings in either 2010, 2012 or both.
“Our team chemistry has been amazing,” said pitcher Nathan Griffith, who pitched a complete game Sunday. “We put it all together. It was our time to shine, and we made the most of it.”
The questions surrounding Cashmere entering the season perhaps only served to strengthen the players’ bond.
At the start of games and practices throughout the season, the Bulldogs players warmed up by running together in a V-formation.
“Have you ever seen birds flying in a V? That’s how we ran,” said senior left fielder Dylan Tarver, who recorded three hits Sunday. “We ran that way for unity.”
“We play well together,” Tarver continued. “We didn’t get playing time on varsity (before this year), but we played on the junior varsity and during the summer, and we knew that we had a good mix of guys. (Winning the state title) was a realistic goal for us from Day One. Every year, this should be the goal. We knew we could do it.”
Cashmere ran its Caribou Trail League winning streak to 56 games this season en route to its fifth straight league title, but unlike last year, the Bulldogs didn’t post a large amount of blowout victories; they were forced to learn how to win games by coming through in clutch situations.
Those experiences obviously helped Cashmere in the postseason.
“We were confident all season long,” said shortstop Mason Elliott, the team’s only returning starter from a year ago. “All year long we’ve been winning close games. We battled and found ways to win.”
On Sunday, they once again had to battle and find a way to win. Montesano took a 3-0 lead after two innings as Griffith struggled and Cashmere’s offense couldn’t break through against Montesano pitcher Matthew Jensen.
But Cashmere made adjustments the second time through the order and started to swing its bats like it’s capable of in the later innings. It scored three times in the third inning on run-scoring hits by Tarver, Connor Badgley and Griffith.
Montesano re-took the lead with a run in the top of the fourth, but Cashmere responded with two more runs in the bottom half of the frame thanks to a Badgley squeeze bunt and an RBI single from Elliott.
Cashmere added a run in the fifth when Chandler Radke scored on a throwing error by Jensen, and scored its final two runs in the sixth on a sacrifice fly by Griffith and an RBI single by Radke.
“The first time around, we weren’t on (Jensen’s) fastball,” Carlson said. “He was throwing a little harder than we expected. The second time through, we had good at-bats and used our speed and did what we had to do.”
“The most important thing for us was to play the game like it was a normal game,” said Tarver, the CTL’s regular-season most valuable player. “(After we got down early), we didn’t lose hope at all. We knew we would come back. It was just a matter of when.”
Griffith overcame his shaky start, and seemed to get better as the game went along. The senior, making just his third start of the season after spending most of the year as Cashmere’s closer, struck out the side in the third and got out of a big jam in the fifth, thanks in part to a successfully-executed hidden ball trick that led to Griffith picking Elliot Mendenhall off of second base.
“At the start of the game, I was nervous, and I would think (my teammates) were too,” Griffith said. “But I regained my composure and started to do what I knew I could do.”
He gave up six hits, struck out four and walked two.
“(Griffifth) refocused. He threw a lot of breaking balls and kept them off-balance, and we played outstanding defense,” Carlson said.
“We knew we had to play real today to win. Montesano’s a good team. (Our) kids have resiliency and a will to win and (good) character. We took the momentum and never gave it back.”
After the game, the word ‘dynasty’ was uttered by a person or two. There’s no doubt that Carlson and the Cashmere program have established a winning tradition that will surely pass down to the next generation of players that watched the Bulldogs win Sunday.
“(Wining the state title is) the best feeling in the world,” Elliott said. “I love it. I hope (we) can keep doing it every year.”
Cascade takes fourth place
Cascade advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in program history this season.
Kodiaks coach Mike Kelly believes that the fact that his team lost its final two games of the season shouldn’t take anything away from the season that it had.
“We want to start something. This was the start of that something,” Kelly said after his team lost to Tenino 6-5 in Sunday’s consolation final. “The kids learned that if they work hard and focus, good things can happen.”
At the start of the year, Kelly and the Kodiaks believed they could be a CTL contender. But to get to where they ended up, they they needed to make some improvements.
“What got us here was the mental game,” he said. “Baseball is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. Baseball is a tough sport. It takes focus and commitment, and we did a better job of that this season.”
Cascade suffered an 8-2 loss to CTL rival Cashmere in Saturday’s semifinal, but played much better Sunday against the Beavers.
Conner Warman led the Kodiaks with three hits.
Austin Murdock pitched all eight innings for Cascade and struck out 10, but gave up Kellen Miller’s run-scoring single that plated what would prove to be the winning run for Tenino.
“(Saturday) we got caught up in the rivalry,” Kelly said. “We focused too much on who we were playing instead of what we were playing. (Sunday), we remembered what got us here.
“We were two different clubs (from Saturday to Sunday). What this game showed was that we proved we belonged, and that we weren’t a fluke. We earned the right to be considered as one of the top four teams in the state.”