The Walla Walla Bruins made their first appearance in the Washington Class AA American Legion state baseball tournament in 2011, and they’ve only missed the big dance twice since then.
And Walla Walla’s 17-and-under team will be in Yakima beginning this weekend for the 2019 state competition after earning the Central Washington League’s No. 4 seed to the 16-team event. The double-elimination tourney commences Saturday at Yakima Valley Community College and Davis High School.
After several seasons as Bill Plucker’s assistant coach, Jason Parson took over the Bruins in 2005. And he remembers well the early 2000s when the program was still struggling to find its footing.
“We were still trying to get the program built and get to the next level,” Parsons recollected in a telephone interview earlier this week.
“Mike Cummins, who was the coach at the community college, was on our board back then,” Parsons said. “He helped reformat us a little bit and we really took off at that point. And those changes came in about 2011.”
The biggest change was that the Bears, Walla Walla’s Class AAA Legion team, turned into an independent program. And by foregoing their Legion affiliation, the Bears were able to supplement their squad by looking farther afield for players when necessary.
Which in turn meant that the 19-and-under team wouldn’t need to promote top-end players from the Class AA Bruins to fill out its roster.
“We were always pulling kids up to Class AAA Legion before they were ready,” Parsons said. “We were robbing Peter to pay Paul and nobody was really having any success.
“But since we reformated, we have had some pretty good players and been on a pretty good run.”
It’s a run highlighted by state championships in 2013, ’15 and ’17. The Bruins also finished second at state in 2012, and they were fourth in 2016.
“The three state title teams were all different,” Parsons said. “They each had their own strengths. They were all pretty well rounded as a whole, but each one had a strength.”
The 2013 team was built around offense, Parsons said. Pitching was the team’s trademark in 2015, and maturity and leadership set the 2017 champs apart.
“That group could really hit,” Parsons said of the 2013 team led by Kal Gray, Logan Cordeiro and Adam Eskil. “We had a really good offense that year.
“It was all about pitching in 2015,” the coach added, singling out Hunter Yensen, Kyle Gradwohl, Jacob Dunn and Mitch Lesmeister as his top arms. “My goodness we had some tremendous pitching on that team.
“And the 2017 team had very good chemistry, led by Nick Zehner and Kyren Morris,” Parsons said. “That team didn’t have one single strength, but it was just so mature and so focused. There were some really good players on that 2017 team.”
Parsons isn’t sure where his current team fits in. The Bruins didn’t make it out of district last year for only the second time in nine seasons, so state will be a new experience for at least some of his players.
“It’s really important being able to handle your nerves,” Parsons said. “Some of these guys went to state with the Griz last year, so I think we will be able to handle ourselves.
“If we can play clean defense, we have a good chance.”
Pitching depth and sound situational hitting have been strengths this summer, Parsons said. But at times defense has been an issue, well illustrated last Sunday when the Bruins were guilty of six errors in an 8-6 loss to the Yakima Valley Peppers in a district seeding game.
“We just occasionally lose our focus in stretches,” Parsons said. “Sometimes the errors come in pairs, and we have trouble getting over the hump on that once in a while.”
While Parsons regards 12 of the 15 players on this year’s roster as pitchers, he basically sticks with a four-man starting rotation of Will Kytola, Ian Kopf, Justin McKenzie and Hunter Polley.
“We don’t have any other designated roles for our pitchers,” he said. “But because of our depth, we can go to different pitchers at different times based on the situation and how much wear and tear they have had.”
Kytola, Kopf and McKenzie also share time at first base and Polley and Brady Knowles split duties at second base. Center fielder Ethan Zehner, shortstop Casey Swanson and third baseman Bobby Holtzinger are regarded as top hitters on the team along with Kopf and Kytola.
Joe Terry and Will Huntsman see time in right field, Dylan Fowler and Zeke Palomo are the left fielders and Anthony Parish and Ryan Chase share catching duties. Jacob Rose can also play third base and pitch.
“We have some team speed, and in the middle of the order we have some guys who can hit balls in the gaps,” Parsons said. “We’re not a big power team, but we do have some power.
“What this team does best is situational hitting,” he added. “We haven’t been able to do some of the small-ball things we have done in the past, but they really do understand situational hitting.”
Parsons’ teams have won a number of district championships and No. 1 state seeds over the years. But he’s not in the least worried about this year’s No. 4 seed.
“Seeding really doesn’t matter,” he said. “When you get to state, everyone is good, and on the first day you are going to see the other team’s No. 1 pitcher and they are going to see ours.
“What you do have to have are four starters to be able to go at any length at state. You have to be able to play clean defense to prevent crooked numbers on the scoreboard, and you have to find ways to manufacture runs because everybody has good pitching.”
The Bruins will take a 35-16 record into Saturday’s tournament opener, a 1 p.m. contest vs. University of Spokane at Davis High. Parsons and assistant coach Jason Gradwohl believe their team is ready.
“We really like the direction of this team,” Parsons said. “Our strengths are starting to come out and the kids are starting to fill out their roles.
“Historically it is hard to tell where this team fits in, but we are pretty well rounded and we feel like we have a pretty good chance. And the best part is, we haven’t played our best baseball of this summer yet.”