It’s a sunny day and an enthusiastic crowd is pushing toward the entrance gate. Your dad buys a program, a bag of peanuts and a couple of frosty chocolate malts, and you both climb over several dozen legs to get to seats in the center section. Within no time there are peanut shells piling up at your feet and you’re waving at the uniformed hawker selling pop to quench your thirst. The malts are gone and the announcer calls the teams onto the field. You stand for the National Anthem and then pull the stubby pencil out of your pocket as your dad explains how to keep score on the chart in the back of the program.
It’s baseball season and there’s nothing like it. If you grew up with a dad like mine who never considered a vacation real unless it included America’s favorite pastime, you understand the intangible thrill of perching on a rock-hard bleacher for three or more hours each Saturday afternoon in spring, ready to leap to your feet to cheer for a line drive or home run.
Sure, you can buy tickets and head downtown to watch the Mariners play. You can circle around for parking or pay the fee at the stadium. You can brave the crowds and make it an all-day event. But there are other options. If you like baseball up close and personal, take in the games in the upcoming season of community college ball. Home games are played at local fields with athletes who are familiar to the communities of Everett, Edmonds and Shoreline, making it a great event for baseball enthusiasts and families to attend.
The Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC) is the parent organization of 34 community colleges in the states of Washington and Oregon. Within it, there are four divisions, with the Northern Region considered the most competitive. It is comprised of teams from Bellevue Community College, Everett Community College, Edmonds Community College, Douglas College, Skagit Valley College, Olympic College and Shoreline Community College. Games are played on Saturdays and Sundays from March through May.
Why play community college ball?
Many community college baseball players are as good or better than those who attend division 1 schools or are drafted by professional teams. Often a player chooses to attend a junior college because he will get more playing time as a freshman than he would at larger schools, according to Scott Kelly who took the position of head coach of the Edmonds Community College Tritons last December.
Other reasons players choose to play junior college baseball include financial, exposure to coaches at larger universities for scholarship opportunities, academic accountability, and the flexibility to say “yes” to a pro team draft. According to Major League Baseball rules for the first-year player draft, four-year college players must have completed their junior or senior year or be at least 21 years old to be drafted, but junior college players can accept a draft at any time.
“Community college is a great option for kids because if you’re a local kid you can spend $8,000 and earn an associate of arts degree, which is a big savings over university tuition; you can move on to a four-year college; and junior college sports give you the drive to be successful academically because you have to work at the academics to be on the team,” Kelly said.
The Edmonds Tritons
Coach Kelly was excited to take the position of head baseball coach for the Edmonds Tritons this year. The team has won seven NWAACC Championships and 19 North Region titles in previous years. “I want to maintain the tradition of the program,” Kelly said. “Winning NWAACC championships and moving kids on to the next level will still be goals here. [Former head coach] Brad Ditter brought in a heck of a recruiting class and I’m excited to get the season started. I’m going to hit the ground running, especially with recruiting for next year.
“When I was growing up in Maple Valley and playing baseball, Edmonds was one of the premiere programs,” Kelly continued. “Then I started coaching and recruiting [at Missouri Valley College], and I really enjoyed the kids who were from the Edmonds program. I liked the way they went about baseball. When I came back and coached at Green River and St. Martins, Edmonds was still one of the best programs. In my whole experience with the NWAACC system, it has been one of the top three programs. So when the opportunity came up and I was in the position personally to take the job of head coach, I did.”
Athletic Director Jorge del la Torre was thrilled when Kelly took the job. “He knows this conference, really stood out as a candidate, and played professionally, which is invaluable. I thought, ‘This is the guy I really want’ after talking to him. It’s really important that a coach wants to develop people, not just win. Scott’s priorities are to move people through to earn an AA or go to a four-year college. I think we’re going to have both winning programs and great student athletes who will be successful on the field and in the classroom.”
Though he came in halfway through the year, Kelly said the athletes are adjusting well to a new coach, and he is pleased about where the team is headed.
“The focus on preparation for spring really starts in January,” he said, explaining that the team practices the game for six weeks in the fall and then adds weight lifting. They meet five times a week for agility, weight lifting and study hall.
“It’s a real change from high school ball,” Kelly said. “In high school the season is about two-and-a-half months; in college it’s about eight months. It takes a toll, so the kids need to be prepared during the off season as well as academically. We really try to help them with managing their time.”
Some of the key players on this year’s roster for the Tritons are pitchers Kevin Sheets, David Reynolds, Zach Johnson and Jimmy Schmidt; catchers Kyle Olson (potential high draft pick) and Jeff Beckmann; shortstop Ryan Archibald; infielder Conner McKeever; and outfielders Jonny Varriano, Kyle Baumgartner, Carl Svanevik, TC Florentine and Sid Livingston.
The Tritons play at Triton Field on the campus of Edmonds Community College.
The Everett Trojans
Levi Lacey, head coach for the Everett Trojans, is a hometown boy. He grew up at 20th and Lombard in North Everett playing ball at the Boys & Girls Club and Everett High School. But when it came time to go to college, Everett Community College didn’t have a baseball team, so he attended Olympic College, then transferred to Albertson College in Idaho on a full-ride scholarship for athletics to complete his education.
After playing independently as a professional for a couple of years, Lacey returned home in 2001, just in time to hear that Everett was starting a baseball program — something it hadn’t had for 20 years. He applied for the position and got it.
“Larry Walker (Athletic Director at Everett Community College) believed in me,” Lacey said. “He said, ‘If you want to be committed to this, if you’re going to coach, you might as well get started.’ It changed my life. Eleven years later we’ve won 330 games, and I’ve gotten six coach-of-the-year awards.”
Lacey is understandably proud of the program he birthed and has driven for the past decade. Everett is currently ranked 11 out of 250 teams for junior colleges on the West Coast, including California and Arizona.
“In the last four years, because of the success we’ve had, I’m finally getting to the point where I can be more selective and get really good baseball players who are good students and citizens, not to mention keeping the local guys home,” Lacey said. “We are looking for top-level potential division 1 pro athletes — even if they get there down the road. Obviously, we want first-class citizens, good students, and good teammates, which is the most important quality — someone willing to put the team’s success in front of his own. If that means laying a bunt down today when he could get a hit, we want a guy willing to play for the team and not just for himself.”
The Everett team has a tough mentality, according to Lacey. “Winning is contagious,” he said. “Once you win, you find ways to get it done. We teach next pitch mentality. We don’t dwell on the past. If I make a mistake, I can’t dwell on that; I have to be mature — not live in the past — and learn from my mistakes. Baseball is a very humbling game.”
Practicing a minimum of three hours a day, six days a week, Lacey’s goal for his athletes is twofold: earning an AA degree so they can move on to earn a four-year degree and reaching their ceiling of potential.
“Several pro players have come out of Everett, as well as hundreds who go on to four-year colleges,” he said.
Lacey pointed out three players to watch this year at Everett: infielder Dylan Lavelle, outfielder Max Whitt, and pitcher Jo Jo Howie.
The Everett Trojans play at Everett Memorial Stadium.
The Shoreline Dolphins
Ryan Browne is beginning his third season as head coach of the baseball team at Shoreline Community College. A Sacramento State graduate, Browne had early success in the game and gained interest from several professional teams, but injuries prevented him from accepting a pro position and he went in the direction of coaching. He met Levy Lacey while playing for a semi-professional team and worked with him in Everett as an assistant hitting and first base coach for several seasons. Then he coached with Steve Seki at Shoreline and took over for him when he retired due to health concerns.
Since taking the position at Shoreline, Browne has made some drastic changes to the coaching staff, adding Dave Snell, Andrew Hutt, and Rick Teegarden as assistant coaches.
“My staff is finally in place,” Browne said. “Dave Snell has opened the doors for recruiting more players and practicing indoors at Showcase Sports in Shoreline.”
Having an indoor practice facility and access to Meridian Park, a brand new field in Shoreline, has helped attract more players too. When it comes to recruiting, Browne attends the majority of showcases in the area, builds connections with summer teams, and looks to professional scouts to send players to his program. The biggest thing he looks for in a player is “having heart.”
“I look to see whether they have a passion for the game or not. Community Colleges don’t necessary get all the values that a four-year school gets, but a kid with heart is easier to work with. I look at personality traits and how they act on the field.”
An ambitious guy, Browne has ambitions for the athletes on his team too. “I have a bigger picture for players. I want them to be successful in life,” he said. “I have them put together a six-year plan so they have a vision in place for athletics and academics. I ask them, ‘Where do you want to be in six years?’ My dad taught me that nothing is dynamic until it is specific. A plan helps you wake up in the morning and know what you’re doing. It helps the players excel as individuals.”
Players to keep an eye on this year at Shoreline include first baseman Kaiona Ahsing, center fielder Luke Merkel, pitcher Henry Macerry, and pitcher and infielder Joshua Fitch.
The Shoreline Dolphins play at Meridian Park.
More information can be found on each of the teams at their school websites.