ANACORTES - Lynden coach Cory White told his players the first week of spring practice: Its not how you start, its how you finish.
The Lions hardly resembled a state-caliber baseball club, let alone a postseason-bound team with their sub-.500 record through the first 10 games of the year.
But Lynden kept improving and improving and with a hard-fought 3-1 Class 2A Sub-District Tournament win against Squalicum Saturday morning, May 17, at Volunteer Park in Anacortes, the Lions captured their third straight trip to the Class 2A State Tournament.
"Our kids have battled all year," White said. "We've constantly improved, and I think that's what I'm most proud of with these kids."
Following the winner-to-state, loser-out win, the Lions lost a 2-0 seeding game against Archbishop Murphy at Daniels Field. The doubleheader split gave Lynden the District 1/2 No. 4 seed, and the Lions will open their state tournament at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 24, in Yelm. They are slated to face District 3's No. 1 seed.
Squalicum, which won a share of the Northwest Conference title, ended its season with the loss.
Lynden (15-9) has won 11 of its last 14 games since starting the season 4-6. Senior pitcher Kody Ames' leadership has helped spark the turnaround, and he provided arguably his best outing of the year when the Lions needed him most.
The senior allowed one run, scattered three hits, struck out five and only walked one through seven innings of work. His ability to baffle Squalicum hitters by changing speeds drew praise from both White and Squalicum coach John Inge.
"Anytime you're in a loser-out game, you want a senior touching the ball," White said. "Kody, he wanted it, and that's the guy you want to have the ball. He had his change up working so well today. That was his best pitch of the day. It kept them off-balance."
For the third straight district game, Squalicum ran into a talented pitcher and was unable to generate much of any offense. The Storm led the NWC in runs per game, but that production was nowhere to be seen during the past week of play in Anacortes.
Squalicum's Kyle Little hit a clutch two-out RBI single in the first to give the Storm an early lead, but Ames at one point retired eight straight and didn't give up a hit after the third inning.
"We can hit, but gosh, that's three great performances against us now," Inge said. "But this one impressed me the most, because it was a true pitching performance. You can tell he was senior."
Ames earned the win, and Storm pitcher Harper Moore took the loss even though he pitched well enough to keep Squalicum in the contest.
Lynden shortstop Jordan Wittenberg tied the game at 1 with a two-out RBI he shot through the left side of the infield to score catcher Carson Smith, but Jordan Corbin was thrown out at third to end the inning.
Again Wittenberg gave the Lions a major boost in the fifth inning, but this time the sophomore did it with his legs.
"Talking before the inning, (coach) said I got to get on and get some fire going," Wittenberg said.
Wittenberg drew an inning-opening walk, and with White's blessing to steal when he chooses, Wittenberg swiped second, and in an attempt to steal third forced a bad throw, which brought the Lynden leadoff man around to score, giving Lynden a 2-1 advantage.
That was all the Lions needed with Ames on the mound, although Cameron Wainwright drove in Dalton Ohligschalger later in the inning with a single back up the middle.
Ames retired Squalicum in order in the seventh to seal the win and state berth.
"I want to be the guy," Ames said. "It's my senior year. This would have been my last game if we ended up losing. I was going to do everything in my power to not let that happen."
Despite the loss, Squalicum (16-6) put together a strong season Inge couldn't have been more pleased with. He said his club grew throughout the year, and he credited assistant coach Vern Yake for helping the Storm build its mental toughness.
"We started seeing strides last year," Inge said, "but we learned how to win and become more of a team, and we became less selfish. Gosh, I'm just as proud as can be."
Lynden received the right to play Archbishop Murphy to improve its state tournament seeding following the Squalicum win.
The Lions hit the ball hard throughout the game, didn't strike out once but still only recorded four hits and suffered a 2-0 loss.
"Obviously you want to get hits, but it's encouraging how hard we were hitting the ball," White said. "Their outfielders made some really great plays."
Seventeen of Lynden's 21 outs were fly balls, including some deep, hard-hit balls Archbishop Murphy outfielders were able to chase down. Lynden moved base runners to second in both the third and fourth innings but couldn't ever deliver a clutch hit to score on Wildcats starter Evan Haugen.
Senior Christian Mouat got the start in Game 2. He gave up eight hits and one earned run with one walk. Archbishop Murphy scored its first run in the third before tacking on an insurance run in the sixth.
"We're excited leaving the yard getting to play next weekend," White said. "The thing is, yeah we got a loss in the second game, but we played good baseball, and I think that's all that matters."
Mouat and second baseman Lucas Petersen led the Lions at the plate Saturday. Both went 3 for 7, and Wainwright went 1 for 3 in both games.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
LYNDEN 3, SQUALICUM 1
Lynden 010 020 0 - 3 8 0
Squalicum 000 000 0 - 1 3 1
WP: Kody Ames. LP: Harper Moore. Highlights: LYN - Lucas Petersen 2-4; Christian Mouat 2-4; Jordan Wittenberg 1-3, RBI, R, BB, 2 SB; Cameron Wainwright 1-3, RBI. SQ - Kyle Little 1-3, RBI; Ernie Yake 1-2, BB; Josh Holcomb 1-3.
ARCHBISHOP MURPHY 2, LYNDEN 0
Lynden 000 000 0 - 0 4 1
Archbishop Murphy 001 001 x - 2 8 1
WP: Evan Haugen. LP: Christian Mouat. Highlights: LYN - Christian Mouat 1-3; Lucas Petersen 1-3; Cameron Wainwright 1-3, SB; Anthony Garcia 1-3.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.