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Griz achieved Legion three-peat in 2015-17

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baseball

Winning a championship in any sport is difficult.

Repeating as a champion has a higher degree of difficulty.

So winning three straight titles is something to marvel.

The Walla Walla Griz achieved a three-peat from 2015-17 that made them the toast of Washington Class A American Legion baseball.

Ryan Van Dyke coached the Griz to the 2015 crown and a 38-13 record.

Zac Widmer was head man for the latter championships.

The Griz entered the 2015 season “with a lot of ability” according to Van Dyke, but lacked pitching depth.

“You play every day in the state tournament with pitching restrictions,” Van Dyke said. “We were worried that if we made it to state, that was going to be the thing that held us back.”

The Griz were mostly Walla Walla High School athletes, but players from Touchet, Milton-Freewater, College Place and Garrison Middle School “were the game changers that filled in the missing gaps,” Van Dyke said.

With that said, Walla Walla possessed three talented Blue Devil outfielders — Scott Golden, Turner Edwards, and Parker Likes.

“They were awesome outfielders,” Van Dyke said. “We knew they could run fly balls down and make outs.”

Early-season highlights included multiple victories over the Kennewick Phantoms, Van Dyke said.

“The single A level has its ups and downs, but our region is strong,” Van Dyke said.

The Griz took a step back when they lost two of three to the Richland Knights. Bu Van Dyke viewed the hiccup as a turning point.

“We didn’t play our best,” Van Dyke said. “But we worked to get better and understood we had to play seven innings.”

Such was life in the Central Washington A League.

“It was hard to sweep any team in the league,” Van Dyke said. “We lost at least one game to every team in the league. It wasn’t like we were cruising through the entire season.”

Walla Walla beat Richland in the opening round of the district tournament, 6-2. Ben Ortiz had two hits and two RBI while older brother Jared tossed a five-hitter.

“It was the first time he ever played legion ball,” VanDyke said of Jared Ortiz. “He was our game-one pitcher every series.”

The Griz lost the regional final to the Kennewick Dusters, 10-7.

“We gave up six runs in the sixth inning,” Van Dyke said. “It was one of those games when things fell apart.”

Walla Walla overcame four errors and a two-hour rain delay to defeat Montesano in its state tournament opener at Walla Walla Community College.

“We scored 11 runs in the seventh inning,” Van Dyke said. “We pounded the ball.”

Nick Zehner threw a complete-game, four-hitter in Walla Walla’s next game — a 9-0 shutout of Lake Stevens.

Devon Oliver hurled a complete game of his own in game three — won by the Griz over Richland, 8-4.

Victories over Lakeside Recovery and Richland propelled Walla Walla into the championship game against Bellingham. Zehner went 3-for-3 and Jared Ortiz delivered six respectable innings in a 7-4 triumph.

Widmer, a star athlete at Wa-Hi, took the reins in 2016 after moving back to the Walla Walla Valley.

“I knew a little bit about the kids,” Widmer said. “We didn’t have a lot of experience. I heard a lot about what was going on and wanted to carry that forward.”

Widmer remembered that his team “meshed together and gelled really fast.”

“We played well,” Widmer said. “It was a good group of kids that found a way to get the job done. They always kept their foot down on the metal.”

The Griz finished in the upper reaches of the league and placed second to Richland in the district tournament.

In the state tourney at Spokane, Walla Walla’s depth moved to center stage, Widmer said.

“We had guys that could go deep into games (on the mound) and guys who could play a lot of positions,” Widmer said.

The Griz beat Whitman County for the title.

Walla Walla had “a lot of new kids” in 2017, Widmer said. “It was a brand new team, but they knew the tradition and understood expectations.”

The Griz “got everyone’s best effort,” Widmer said. Walla Walla lost 12 games including a pair of lopsided setbacks to Lakeside Recovery.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Widmer said. “The kids knew how hard they had to work to get to a championship-caliber level. We turned it around and found a groove.”

The Griz took second in both league and district play.

Walla Walla’s state-tournament pitching in Lynden was solid, Widmer said.

“Kids went deep into games,” Widmer said. “The pitching played in our favor.

“The kids played tough,” Widmer said. “We played a lot of small ball and were aggressive. The kids embraced that.”

And embraced the championship trophy after upending Lakeside Recovery.

“The kids knew they were the team to beat,” Widmer said. “But we were a completely different team. The first two games got away from us, but we did a lot of the little things (in the final game).”

Widmer said this championship run was fun to be a part of.

“At any level in any sport, the ultimate goal is to win the championship,” Widmer said. “It takes so many people (to make it possible). The players, families, community, and coaches made it a really special deal.”

Roy Elia can be reached at royelia@wwub.com.