SPORTS: End of an era for Chimacum baseball

CHIMACUM — It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

After the final pitch was thrown and the final out was recorded, the shocked Chimacum baseball team shook hands with the team that just beat it 1-0 in the regional championship game, Kalama.

Chimacum coach Jim Dunn took his team out into right field where players would be alone with their thoughts while Kalama celebrated in the distance.

“There are no words to say or anything to do to make things better,” Dunn said about the moment.

“It was the lowest point those kids have been [in their high school career].”

The Cowboys were expecting to be playing for the state championship again this coming weekend.

They were 19-0 going into the regional title game, the defending state champions with three of the best Class 1A players in the state, a super-senior class that went eight deep and a strong, experienced supporting cast that didn’t know how to lose.

After all, the Cowboys have played in the 1A Final Four on Memorial Day weekend four times in the past five years, capturing first place twice, and second and third place once each in that time.

Chimacum’s season ended up short because it went against a state-class pitcher, Lars Rider, who had a career day with one hit, a bunt single, and 12 strikeouts.

“We happened to go against a Landon Cray on the other team,” Dunn said.

Kalama won 1-0 despite Chimacum’s Quinn Eldridge having another stellar performance on the mound.

“Quinn matched him pitch-for-pitch,” Dunn said. “He had a phenomenal game.”

Eldridge struck out 11, walked none, scattered five hits and gave up the lone unearned run. His ERA for the year is 0.00.

The Cowboys did not go down without a fight.

“Everyone on the team battled and played their hearts out,” Dunn said.

This has been a tough week for the Cowboys, who were expecting one final week of practice and state-caliber competition.

Dunn said it has been a sad week for him.

“No one on the team was ready for the season to end,” he said.

“I didn’t feel like our time was up. I wanted one more week with this team.”

This team, probably the best high school team ever assembled on the North Olympic Peninsula, featured the top three players in the Nisqually League.

Cray, who has earned MVP in league all four years of his high school career, shared the honors this season with teammate Austin McConnell, the starting catcher and standout pitcher in his own right.

Nisqually coaches split 3-3 in votes for the two.

Eldridge, who has the best pitching stats on the team, also received an MVP vote.

The two top starting pitchers on the staff, Cray and Eldridge, have one earned run between them for the entire year.

Ironically, the one earned run against Cray was a player he had struck out. The ball was dropped on the third strike, the player made it to first base and ended up rounding the bases for a run.

Cray, Eldridge and McConnell also lead a hitting attack that has five players hitting better than .400.

An era ends with these eight seniors leaving the program.

Four of them were four-year varsity players, but all of them made major contributions to the team and the reputation of the program.

“This is really a good bunch of kids,” Dunn said.

“They really made my job easier. The kids knew what needed to be done and they played to win every game.”

It would seem to outsiders that the Cowboys will have to rebuild next year and that their string of state appearances could be over for awhile after losing this super group of seniors to graduation.

Not so fast, Dunn says.

The cupboard may not be full next year but it’s not empty, either.

“It’s not as full as it was, but we have players on the team growing and who have been learning from the seniors,” Dunn said.

That includes junior Michael Nordberg, who will be the top returning player and the ace pitcher in the 2013 season.

“He was a key player to our team this year, and he will be next year,” Dunn said.

Nordberg was the No. 3 starter this season, overshadowed by the talents of Cray and Eldridge.

But he ended up undefeated as a standout pitcher of his own right.

He threw in the first regional game last weekend when the Cowboys beat Ridgefield 7-4.

“He’s a good pitcher,” Dunn said. “I started him in that big game because I have complete trust in his abilities.”

In addition, Nordberg is a strong hitter. He was No. 3 on the team in hitting, especially with clutch hits.

But he may not get the same opportunities next season that he had this year offensively.

“They will pitch around him next year because we won’t have the supporting staff we do this year,” Dunn said.

The Cowboys will have a different style and look next year but it will be the same program with the desire to win every time it steps on the field.

“We will play a different style of ball and we will win a little differently,” Dunn said.

The Cowboys will have to finesse players around the bases and take advantage of errors by the other team instead of just knocking the stuffing out of the ball.

“We would take advantage of mistakes by the other team this year, too, but it’s different when you have five kids all batting over .400 who are getting 80 to 90 percent of the team’s RBIs,” Dunn said.

There will be new challenges next year for Dunn but the coach is looking forward to it.

“As a coach, you like challenges like that.”

Teams that overlook Chimacum next year may get a little shock.

Never count the Cowboys out.

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