Check the pulse of the Coupeville High School baseball team and the strongest beat will come from its senior class.
The seniors – Ben Etzell, Morgan Payne, Wade Schaef, Kurtis Smith and Jake Tumblin – have played an integral part on the Coupeville varsity since their freshman year. Over the years, they experienced the low of a last-place team barely alive on life support to the high of leading a team this season that is healthy enough to challenge for the Cascade Conference crown and postseason honors.
In fact, their goal is to “win state,” Schaef said.
Some might consider a state crown unrealistic, but they believe it is possible because they have been there before.
In 2010, the summer after their eighth-grade year, they led the Central Whidbey Junior Little League team of 13- and 14-year-olds to the Washington state championship, beating big-city teams from Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver and Redmond en route.
Those winning ways vanished once they hit high school. Playing against teams dominated by upperclassmen three and four years older, Coupeville, predictably, struggled.
In 2011, the Wolves won only two of 18 games, lost by an average of seven runs per game and were beaten 10 times by double digits.
The tough times, however, were not a shock, the seniors said.
“We knew it would be a rebuilding year,” Tumblin said.
“We understood we weren’t playing against kids our own age,” Etzell said. “They were juniors and seniors; they were bigger and stronger.”
“It was a learning experience,” Smith said. “We were putting in the hard work for the next few years.”
Their sophomore season saw little improvement in the win column, upping their total to three. However, the strides they made were obvious by other measures.
“We competed better,” Payne said. That they did, cutting the average margin of defeat to 4.5 runs per game and the number of 10-run losses in half.
After the season, a meeting with coach Willie Smith helped the group refocus their efforts and build their confidence.
“To compete,” Tumblin said, “we had to play.”
They were able to get more game experience when Coupeville formed its first summer team for high-school-aged players in 10 years. They also renewed efforts in the weight room.
“We were more devoted; our approach was better,” Tumblin said. “We come in early in the morning and worked out.”
The team, however, still had “mental issues,” Etzell said.
“We had all the fundamentals down,” Kurtis Smith added, “we just needed to regain our confidence.”
The boost in confidence came quickly. The Wolves parlayed the lessons learned, the off-season play and the conditioning into a 10-win season last spring, good enough for third place in the Cascade Conference.
“Once we started to win,” Tumblin said, “we knew we could play with the best teams.”
Now the group is poised to complete the circle – state title to state title.
“It’s our last shot,” Kurtis Smith added.
“I think their freshman and sophomore years were pretty crucial to them developing their sense of identity and their desire to be successful,” coach Smith said. “Those two years, combined with the successes we had last year, going from a predicted last-place finish to a third-place finish in league, and the bitter taste of how we ended the season in the playoffs, have put a fire in them to not only excel this year, but to exceed everyone’s expectations.”
The group knows it takes more than talent to be the last team standing.
The senior class is special, Tumblin said, because they “have been together so long.” They grew up together; Schaef was the last to join them, moving to Coupeville in the fourth grade.
“We have a strong friendship,” Etzell said. “Not just on the field, but off.”
“Besides their commitment to winning, they have an overwhelming commitment to each other,” coach Smith said.
“They are as unique as a group can get but have come together through their individuality to form as strong and cohesive a group as I’ve seen come through our school,” he added. “Not only am I excited to see what they can do on the field this year, but what they are going to accomplish post high school.”
Together, they have the heart of a champion.