BLAINE - The last time Mount Baker qualified for a state baseball tournament, Kaleb Brownfield was in third grade and "already too busy playing ball" to dream of anything.
By the time Brownfield entered Mount Baker, however, he recalls he could only hope to become a starting pitcher.
It took him four seasons, but the senior right-hander's reward for hanging in there was the chance to pitch the Mountaineers into their first state tournament since 2004.
Brownfield's 2-1 victory over Meridian on Saturday, May 4, before a large, enthusiastic crowd at Pipeline Fields was a masterpiece of poise as the Mounties won the Class 1A Northwest District championship for their first district title in nine years.
The victory sends Mount Baker (l0-13) directly to the Tri-District championship game on Saturday, May 11, at Joe Martin Field against an opponent to be determined. The Mounties are already guaranteed one of five state berths at Tri-District.
Meridian (13-9) also will play Saturday at Sehome High School, with two chances to gain the one victory that will send the Trojans back to state.
The other two Northwest District qualifiers for Tri-District were Friday Harbor and South Whidbey. Friday Harbor eliminated Nooksack Valley 2-1 and the Wolverines then took third place with a 6-3 win over South Whidbey. The Falcons eliminated Lynden Christian 6-3.
Brownfield wasn't Baker's only poised performer.
Junior shortstop Andrew Zender lined a two-strike, one-out pitch to drive home two runs in the fifth inning and Brownfield made it stand up while finishing a smooth two-hit complete game.
"Coach (Quinn LeSage) told me my fastball was better than most of their hitters, so that's what I threw, almost nothing but fastballs," said Brownfield (5-4), who had 68 strikes among an efficient 96-pitch effort. He walked only two.
"That's better than I usually do," Brownfield said of his control. "I usually hit a few guys."
LeSage, in his second season at Baker, said Brownfield's fastball showed his courage and "gutsy approach."
"Kaleb really showed what a competitor he is," said LeSage. "He didn't throw more than three or four curves all day."
Brownfield, who served as a closer last season, just flashed a huge grin when asked if he ever thought he could become a starter.
"When I entered Mount Baker, I wasn't sure I would ever be a pitcher," he said.
Meridian coach Steve Slesk praised both Brownfield and Trojans sophomore Tanner Tutterrow.
"Neither pitcher deserved that fate (to lose)," said Slesk. "All three runs in the game were unearned."
Slesk tipped his hat to LeSage and the Mounties.
"Baker battled way harder than we did," said Slesk, whose Trojans have finished third in the past three Class 1A state tournaments. "They deserved to win today. Their kids wanted it more than we did. I'm disappointed. ... but I have to drop that (loss) on me for not getting the kids ready to play well enough."
Can the Trojans come back?
"Yes, we can," said Slesk. "We need one victory at Tri-District on Saturday. We're going to be a lot more ready to play than we were today."
Tutterrow allowed only one hit, a single by No. 8 hitter Colton Ranson, in the first three innings.
In the fourth, Cody Larson, Tyrel Cronk and Nick Larson strung solid singles for Baker, but Tutterrow escaped by alertly foiling what could have been a suicide squeeze. Tutterrow, third baseman Jeremy Brockmann and catcher Davis Phillips teamed to retire Cody Larson, who found himself in a dilemma off third place and finally was put out sliding into home on a tag by Tutterrow.
Meridian took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth when three errors produced the only run off Brownfield. But the right-hander didn't seem the least bit rattled and retired three consecutive batters.
Brownfield then allowed only one more hit, a sixth-inning single by Meridian leadoff man Josh Hosick, but Cronk gunned down Hosick trying to steal with a fine throw to second baseman Jacob Marr, who executed the crucial putout well.
Baker broke through for its two runs in the fifth after Brownfield was hit with one out, followed by two errors to load the bases as Titus Balvanz and Marr both were safe. Zender then came through with the biggest hit he has ever had for Baker, bringing home Brownfield and Balvanz.
The Trojans had a last-gasp shot. Tutterrow, who had Meridian's only other hit with a single in the second inning, worked Brownfield's second walk of the game with one out in the seventh.
Jacob Plagerman sacrificed the runner along, but Brownfield got the last out when Phillips hit his first pitch directly to shortstop at Zender, who threw the runner out to ignite a wild celebration among Baker players, coaches, parents and fans alike on a perfect day for baseball.
Nick Larson, Baker's No. 6 hitter, was the only player in the game with two hits, so dominant were both Brownfield and Tutterrow. In fact, Tutterrow, who plays shortstop most of the time, did a commendable job holding down a potent Baker lineup that scored 24 runs in its first two district wins.
LC, NOOKSACK ELIMINATED
Friday Harbor senior standout Austin Lambright struck out 16 and sophomore Gabe Lawson hit a two-run double with one out in the bottom of the seventh to eliminate Nooksack Valley 2-1. The loss spoiled an outstanding pitching performance by Nooksack senior Brandon Valnes.
Friday Harbor's coaches could log only four hits in their scorebook thanks to Valnes.
Meanwhile, South Whidbey eliminated Lynden Christian 6-3 behind seven-hit pitching by junior Colton Sterba, spoiling Truman Van Dalen's final mound appearance for the Lyncs.
Jamie Heystek led LC with two hits including a double.
Mount Baker 000 020 0 - 2 6 3
Meridian 000 100 0 - 1 2 2
WP: Kaleb Brownfield (5-4). LP: Tanner Tutterow. Highlights: Mount Baker: Andrew Zender 1-4, 2 RBI; Cody Larson 1-3; Tyrel Cronk 1-3; Nick Larson 2-3; Colton Ranson 1-2. Meridian: Josh Hosick 1-3; Tanner Tutterow 1-3.
Lynden Christian 100 001 1 - 3 7 2
South Whidbey 103 200 x - 6 6 3
WP: Colton Sterba (4-0). LP: Truman Van Dalen: Highlights: South Whidbey: Aaron Curfman 2-3, 3B. LC: Jamie Heystek 2-3, 2B.
Nooksack Valley 100 000 0 - 1 2 1
Friday Harbor 000 000 2 - 2 4 0
WP: Austin Lambright (16 strikeouts). LP: Brandon Valnes. Highlights: Friday Harbor: Gabe Lawson 2B, 2 RBI.