The last time the Washougal baseball team competed in the district tournament, head coach Zach Carter was an 8-year-old learning to hit fastballs in the East County Little League.
That was 18 years ago. And, while making the playoffs is never easy, Carter said he thought the Panthers had a solid chance this season.
“There’s definitely been a huge change around here. I mean, the positive attitudes — our guys are coming out every game ready to play, and that’s something we haven’t always had the past few years,” said Carter, who is wrapping up his first year as the team’s head coach after working as assistant coach for three years.
The team had a major turning point in the season on April 22, after topping R.A. Long, 5-1.
“It was really cool for our seniors because we’ve never beaten R.A. Long since they started in the program as freshmen,” Carter said.
Washougal senior Zach Collins pitched the win, striking out 10 batters while allowing six hits. Collins said his goal going into the game was to limit the amount of walks, something that was a problem for the Panthers early in the season.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’ve got to keep it under four pitches for each batter. We can’t have any walks and just need to keep pounding the zone and let our guys in the field take care of things,'” Collins said.
Carter said his No. 1 pitcher, Collins, just keeps getting better.
“All his stuff was working well. His changeup, his curveball, his fastball (all) had good velocity, and even the umpire helped him out a bit with a few high and low pitches, but Zach came out strong,” Carter said.
Coach says team had positive ‘attitude adjustment’
Changing a culture that’s accustomed to losing takes more than just hard work, it requires a change in the entire team’s attitude toward the game, Carter said.
Collins and juniors Brevan Bea and Julien Jones have been a big part of the Panthers’ “attitude adjustment” this season.
“I think we are starting to come out with a lot more energy than we used to, and we’re really getting into the games,” said Jones, who smashed a double off the center field fence and brought in two runs in the second inning on April 22.
Bea closed out the game against R.A. Long, throwing two-thirds of an inning in relief after hitting a double and two singles.
“We just need to keep coming out and swing the bats like we did today, and play defense and also keep our positive energy up,” Bea said.
One day after the victory over R.A. Long, the Panthers suffered a letdown against the Greater St. Helens League’s leading 2A team, the Columbia River Chieftains, losing 12-2. However, the next day, on Wednesday, April 24, with Jones on the mound, Washougal topped Hockinson 7-5. The win moved Washougal ahead of Hockinson into fourth place in the league standings — a critical move since the top four in league go to districts.
“We want to bring districts back to Panther baseball. That’s our main goal this year. We want to make it to districts and go as far as we can,” Collins said.
Missed opportunities weaken Panthers’ chances
On Friday, April 26, the Panthers had an opportunity to clinch that elusive trip to districts, but they lost to last-place Mark Morris 6-3.
Then, on Monday, April 29, the Panthers lost another chance to clinch their first playoff trip in nearly two decades, losing to Woodland 5-2.
The Panthers had a one-run lead for most of the game against Woodland until the sixth and seventh innings, when the Beavers’ bats heated up. Ethan Bausch was the starting pitcher for Washougal, and Bea didn’t throw a pitch until the seventh.
“Ethan pitched a great game for us, but the past few games we had two good pitching performances, but failed to bring out the bats,” Carter said.
Time is running out for the Panthers’ districts hopes, but they still have a chance to stay ahead of Hockinson in the rankings.
“We have two games against Ridgefield left, but one game was suspended in the fourth inning two weeks ago and we will start that one down 13-1, but we will still play them another full game on Thursday (May 2),” Carter said.
Hockinson has three remaining games in the race for the district tournament. All the Panthers can do at this point is win their last game and cross their fingers.