CASTLE ROCK –The Chimacum baseball team’s road to the Class 1A state Final Four in Yakima goes through a familiar place this weekend.
For the third time in four years, the Cowboys (15-3 overall) find themselves starting their state tournament in Castle Rock.
And, for the second year in a row, that begins with a game against the host Rockets (15-5) at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
It’s a significant home-field advantage to say the least. But not one the Cowboys are all that worried about.
After all, Chimacum knocked off Castle Rock 5-4 in last year’s first-round matchup on the way to a third-place finish and is 4-0 all-time in regional games there.
That includes the 2007 team’s 23-11 two-game cakewalk through Castle Rock on its way to the 1A state championship.
So does that mean the Cowboys are more ready?
“I don’t know if I would go quite that far,” Cowboys coach Loren Bishop said, “but it does help to be more familiar with the field that you are playing on.”
It also helps that these Cowboys are quite familiar with the pressure that comes with the state playoffs.
This marks the fourth time in five years that Chimacum is in the state tournament.
The Cowboys are 8-2 in the three previous state appearances under Bishop, with two of those teams (’07 and ’09) eventually moving on to the Final Four in Yakima.
A 3-1 state run
A majority of the players on Bishop’s current roster were part of last year’s 3-1 state run.
With a pair of close games in the sub-district championships, a 6-5 win over state participant Cascade Christian, and a 3-2 loss to Meridian, the Cowboys are also battle tested this spring.
“The loss probably wasn’t a bad thing against Meridian last week,” said Bishop, whose 2009 team also backed into state with a loss.
“We had a 13-game win streak going into that game, and maybe a little of that makes them understand that they aren’t quite as invincible as they think they are.”
Chimacum ace Landon Cray (5-1) was tabbed with his first loss of the season after he hit a batter with the bases loaded to end the Meridian game.
The sophomore left-hander will be back on the mound in Saturday’s first-round game against Castle Rock.
Bishop considers the Rockets to be the Cowboys’ biggest threats in a regional that also includes Onalaska and Cedar Park Christian.
If the Cowboys manage to beat Castle Rock, then either sophomore Quinn Eldridge (3-0) or sophomore Austin McConnell (3-1) will likely start the second game.
“You’ve got to look at what you want for the whole picture, not what you want for the first game,” Bishop said. “In my mind you go down there to win them both.
“I don’t look at that [first] game as being the must-win game. I just think that’s going to be our toughest game.”
Cray finished the season with a 0.96 earned run average with 76 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched, earning the 1A Nisqually League MVP in the process.
He will go up against another left-handed ace in Castle Rock’s Dustin Hamilton.
The senior has been a front-line starter for the Rockets since his sophomore season, carrying them to the district title with a pair of wins on the mound.
That included a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout against Rochester in the district title game.
Castle Rock finished second in the SWL Trico Division to top-ranked Kalama before catching fire in district play and winning out.
“I think they got hot during their district,” Bishop said.
“They caught some breaks and got a couple of hits when they needed it. I expect them to be a solid enough team, but I don’t expect them to be any more than that.”
Hamilton will face a Chimacum lineup that boasts five hitters with batting averages above .400 during the regular season.
Cray led the Cowboys with a .500 average with two home runs, eight double, 14 stolen bases and 17 RBIs.
Devin Manix hit .446 with a team-high 23 RBIs, while McConnell hit .407 with a team-best three homers, five doubles and 22 RBIs.
“Hopefully these kids can keep the bats going,” Bishop said. “Defensively, pitching, we’re solid enough that as long as we hit the ball we’ll be fine.
“I feel pretty confident. I feel the kids feel pretty confident. If we hit the ball we’ll probably come out of there with a victory.“We’ve hit the ball pretty decent all season. I feel we will this weekend.”