That was the goal of the Coupeville High School baseball team as it approached its first game in mid-March.
Not unrealistic, not cliché. The Wolves returned eight starters, all multi-year lettermen, and its entire pitching staff from a team that finished third in the Cascade Conference in 2013 behind 2A powerhouses Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest.
Four years ago, this group won the state Junior Little League crown.
Then this season started. On April 7, Coupeville owned a 3-5 record and was closer to the league cellar than a state pennant.
And things appeared to be getting worse. The Wolves soon lost their starting shortstop to a season-ending injury and their No. 2 pitcher developed shoulder problems and couldn’t take the mound.
Turned out, however, that the struggling team and not the bold prediction was the mirage.
The Wolves rattled off seven wins in their final 11 regular-season games and built momentum for the postseason.
Coupeville jumped through the first two playoff hoops, winning four of five postseason games. First the Wolves finished second in the district tournament, then they took third in the tri-district. Those wins landed Coupeville in the state tournament.
The tri-district victories came Saturday, May 17.
The Wolves won a 1-0 heart-pounder over Overlake/Beak Creak in eight innings at Bellingham’s Sehome High School, then claimed third place by stopping Charles Wright/Life Christian Academy 6-3 at Meridian High School later that afternoon.
Third was the best Coupeville could accomplish at tri-district after finishing second in the district tournament last week. Two district champions, South Whidbey and Bothell’s Cedar Park Christian, were automatically placed in the tri-district title game. Cedar Park won 5-2 Saturday.
By placing third, Coupeville earned its first state trip since 2008 and a short ride to Anacortes. The second and fourth seeds from tri-district (South Whidbey and CW/LCA) travel to Castle Rock, and the fifth seed, Overlake, journeys to Moses Lake.
The Wolves (14-10) will play eighth-ranked Evergreen Conference champion Rochester (16-6) at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 24, in a loser-out game. If they win, they will play the winner of Cedar Park Christian (18-2) and Hoquiam (15-8) at about 4 p.m. for the regional title. The regional champ qualifies for the final four in Yakima and will play May 30 and 31.
In the bottom of the eighth inning in the thrilling win over Overlake, Kurtis Smith looped a two-out single that drove home speedster Jake Tumblin from second base to secure Coupeville a spot in the state tournament.
Smith’s heroics were set up by a gutsy pitching effort by Ben Etzell.
Etzell threw a complete-game three hitter, striking out 12 and walking five. Nine of the strikeouts came with runners in scoring position as he pitched out of trouble in each of the final four innings.
Overlake’s biggest threat came in the seventh. Three walks, the last intentional, loaded the bases with one out, bring up the top of the Growler order. Etzell then fanned the next two batters, the last on a nail-biting 3-2 pitch.
Overlake pitcher Matt Kaiser matched Etzell zero-for-zero until the eighth. He pitched a four-hitter, struck out seven and walked four.
Etzell, who had a double, and Smith accounted for Coupeville’s four hits, getting two each.
Until the eighth, the Wolves never had a base runner with less than two outs. At one stretch, from the fourth through the seventh, only one Coupeville hitter reached base (Wade Schaef walked in the fifth).
With one out in the eighth, Schaef walked again. Tumblin hit a grounder to shortstop, which forced Schaef at second. The late throw to first to try to double-up Tumblin skipped by the first baseman and allowed Tumblin to advance to second, setting up Smith’s game-winning hit.
In the top of the eighth, a lead-off single and error put a runner at second with no outs. Etzell, who threw well over 100 pitches, then finished his day with three straight strikeouts. The last two with a runner on third after a passed ball.
Had the game gone to the ninth inning, Coupeville coach Willie Smith said he would have turned to Aaron Trumbull to finish the game.
Etzell admitted after the game he was spent. He also said he wasn’t concerned when he faced the bases-loaded, one-out situation in the seventh even though he put two of the runners on with walks.
“I have the mind set, that whenever runners get on second or third, I am not going to let them score.”
Scoring came quickly for Coupeville in the win over Charles Wright/Life Christian Academy of Tacoma.
The Wolves scored four runs in the first inning thanks to singles by Tumblin, Josh Bayne and Cole Payne and a two-run double from Aaron Curtin.
Charles Wright trimmed the lead to 4-3 in the sixth, then Coupeville scored two more. Bayne and Curtin singled and Korbin Korzan was hit by a pitch, loading the bases.
Wade Schaef followed with a bunt that began a crazy sequence. The bunt scored Bayne and Schaef was safe at first when no one covered the base. On the bunt, Curtin tried to score from second and was thrown out. Schaef bolted for second base, and on the throw to second Korbin scored.
Curtin finished 2-for-3 with a double and three RBI, Etzell was 2-for-3 and the Wolves finished with nine hits. While the offense was putting up six runs, Coupeville pitcher C.J. Smith threw a complete-game, five-hitter.