Darrin Otter still remembers when the core of his Whatcom Reign 13U Pony League baseball club was a group of bumbling tee-ballers merely trying to swing and make contact.
Seven years later, he's left trying to find a ballpark suitable for his middle-school mashers.
"They used to come to practice with their sleeves cut off chewing gum with eye black under their eyes, and if they caught a ball, if they could just catch it or even make contact with a ball, we were ecstatic," said Otter during a midweek evening practice at Ferndale's Pioneer Park ball fields. "And now to where we have to watch what field we play on because they are yanking balls out of the park, it has been absolutely awesome to watch this group of kids grow."
The Reign, composed of a dozen 12 and 13 year olds from Ferndale, Bellingham and Lynden, will be giving Otter another lasting memory this weekend when the club heads to Fullerton, Calif., for the Western Zone National Pony League Tournament after winning the Pony Northwest Regional Tournament last weekend in Lacey.
"I thought it was really exciting," standout shortstop Marcos Abitia said of winning the regional. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Whatcom is Washington's only representative at nationals. It'll play teams from Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona and California in an eight-team double elimination-style tournament.
Getting the chance to play on a national stage is impressive, no doubt, but what's even more striking is how the Whatcom Reign has done it.
Left without a full roster heading into a new baseball season, Otter combined his group of seven players, who've been with him since tee ball, with four Lynden players and one Bellingham player. The Reign was formed.
A slow start quickly gave way to a dominant final two-thirds of the season. Despite winning only two tournaments, Whatcom put together a 31-9-2 record, losing only one game in its last 25 and two games in its last 35. They've outscored opponents 386-170.
The Reign is a youth baseball anomaly. They don't have just one or two great hitters or pitchers, which is often synonymous with youth baseball success. No true ace exists. Rather, Otter is quick to point out, if it were up to him, he'd hit all 12 players on the roster instead of using the standard nine-hitter lineup.
Ty Vandyken, Carson Rubenack, Reid Benson, James Hinson, Jordan Holmstrom and Abitia "can flat out hit the tar out of the ball," Otter said. Mason Shaw, Jonathan Larson and Trevin Hope are part of a seven-man pitching rotation and all three were pivotal during Whatcom's regional tournament win. Bryson Hickok provides strong defense in the infield, Baker Otter, the Reign's catcher, rarely lets a ball past him and the youngest player on the team, Dylan Hickok, the lone 12 year old, serves as team captain.
No weak link exists.
Besides Otter, the Reign is coached by Scott Hickok, Greg Vandyken and Jeff Shaw.
"If you get down to our 9, 10, 11, 12 (hitters)," Otter said," you're liable to get a double, a double, a triple off the wall, and now you're back at the top of the lineup again. ... I think you could take the bottom of our lineup, put it at the top and mix it around however you want."
Hinson, who was selected MVP of the regional tournament, pitching five innings of one-hit ball in the championship game, echoed Otter's remarks.
"Whether it's your best guy or your worst guy on the team, we're all closely talented," the 13-year-old Ferndale player said.
Hinson also stars on the football field and basketball court. Otter billed him as an "all-around athlete." Playing on 80-foot base paths with a mound distance of 54 feet from the plate, he throws in the high 60s to low to mid 70s. Hinson also has a nasty slider. When he's not giving Whatcom clutch innings on the mound, he's using his speed to track down fly balls in the outfield.
"He's what you call a five-tool guy," Otter said. "Sometimes you wonder if you just need a left fielder and a right fielder."
Abitia is another top-tier talent. He bats leadoff but is more known for his outstanding play at shortstop.
He's compiled a highlight reel-worthy bunch of diving stops, throws from his knees, pirouette throws to first and double plays. His personal favorite was a triple play during a game in Tacoma. He's left plenty in awe of this glove work this season.
"Marcos has more natural talent playing in the infield than we can provide coaching," Otter said. "He's made some plays this year that have left the crowd speechless."
Abitia, who's from Lynden, credits his uncle Caden Lair with much of his success, saying Lair continuously pushes him to get better.
This is Abitia's first year playing under Otter, and the coach is enjoying his time with the young player while it lasts.
"Playing him in the past, us being Ferndale and him coming from Lynden, he has been a real nuisance," Otter said. "It's too bad he's going to Lynden, because my boys will play here in Ferndale, and we're going to have to play him, and I'm not looking forward to it."
Winning regionals, Otter and Hinson believed, was obtainable. Faring well during the West Zone National Tournament will be a much more difficult task.
Only one team from Whatcom County that Otter knows of has won at least one game during the tournament. The Whatcom Reign has set multiple goals for themselves, and breaking ground with two wins would be a major accomplishment.
"The pressure that we're putting on our boys is just to not let up," Otter said. "We need to keep the pressure on these teams, go down there and show them that we were the right team to win our region and not be done. We need to treat it like any other baseball tournament we're tying to win."
Whatcom opens the tournament against Southern California at noon, Saturday, July 18.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.