After losing a wealth of talented seniors, Lynden baseball coach Cory White at the beginning of the season expressed no concern regarding his 2014 club.
He felt confident his nearly entirely new starting lineup was primed for enlarged varsity roles following two or three years of learning under state-caliber teams.
But the Lions struggled early.
They compiled a 4-6 record through the first 10 games of the season and found themselves at the crossroads of their season during an early conference game against Bellingham.
Lynden surrendered its lead twice and lost in extra innings, but the lessons learned that game have resonated throughout the season, White said.
"To me that was a real turning point," said the Lynden coach in a phone interview. "We'd been telling players all year about doing the little things correctly. Those little things make a big difference in a ball game. I think we've won 11 of 14 after that, and they've really bought into doing those little things that make a major impact on the game."
A concerted effort on executing sacrifices, heads-up baserunning, strong defense and manufacturing runs - what White describes as the little things - have paved the way for Lynden being the only Whatcom County team still alive in the postseason.
The Lions earned District 1/2's No. 4 seed during the Class 2A Bi-District Tournament last week and face Sumner during the state tournament's opening round at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 24, in Yelm. Lynden needs to beat Sumner and the winner of Anacortes-W.F. West to advance to next week's state semifinals.
The state berth is Lynden's third straight, and it's quite an impressive feat for a group of Lions who weren't offered by outsiders the same high praise as previous clubs were.
"We were in a lot of games and felt other teams didn't respect us like they did in the past," Lynden senior pitcher Kody Ames said in a phone interview. "We've had a chip on our shoulder."
Beyond executing in the field, White credited experiencing what it takes to win and benefiting from extra work postseason play invites as two of the main reasons this year's Lions have been able to fill their potential.
"The class of 2012 and 2013, that was huge seeing it done day in and day out, the proper way required to win, that overall excitement for competing," White said.
Also being in the postseason each of the past two years has given Lynden nearly two extra months of baseball to hone its skills. White compared the bonus time to a college football team qualifying for a bowl game and how that additional time allows a team to improve more than a team whose season ends once the final regular-season game is played.
And improvement has been noticeable to more than just White and his coaching staff. The Lions coach during last week's district tournament was approached by an umpire who'd been calling games throughout Whatcom and Skagit County the entire year. He praised the club, acknowledging how much they'd improve throughout the season.
"He pulled me off to the side and made a comment that they really felt we had improved the most throughout the course of the season," White said. "I think that is a real complement to the kids and the assistant coaches that are with us."
The Lions have also reaped the benefits of a strong group of seniors who've provided leadership, especially with Ames and do-everything-player Christian Mouat.
Ames has taken ownership of Lynden's No. 1 pitching role, and advanced the Lions to state with arguably his best outing of the year during a must-win game against Squalicum.
Mouat also has given Lynden great innings on the mound. He also plays first when Ames is pitching or second base when Lucas Petersen is on the bump.
Both have helped elevate the club's play with their leadership.
"At times it can be a weight to carry, but we have a bunch of other seniors on the team, and we spread the pressure among ourselves," Mouat said. "I like being a leader on the team. It makes me feel good to rally the guys. It gets me pumped and the rest of the guys pumped."
As does clutch hitting, and those timely base knocks have been prevalent especially during the back half of the year.
Jordan Wittenberg had a walkoff base hit to lift the Lions to a 3-2 win over Anacortes, and that carried over to later in the year when the Lions won a marathon 12-inning game against Ferndale. Ames and Jordan Wittenberg provided clutch hits late, and Mouat gave the Lions the win with a walkoff base hit.
Mouat came through again during a postseason-clinching win against Sedro-Woolley. Lynden catcher Carson Smith executed a suicide-squeeze bunt followed by an Anthony Garcia RBI in the seventh inning during a district tournament opening 4-2 win against Granite Falls, and Wittenberg and Cameron Wainwright keyed a district win against Squalicum that advanced the Lions to state.
"Late in the season we've had a lot of clutch hitting at the end to push us to get the win," Ames said.
He and the rest of the Lions are hoping that carries over against Sumner, which owns a 21-1 record and won the 2A West Central District title last week.
Ames, who is slated to get the start, said he knows he'll have to pitch another strong game to put Lynden in position to win.
"On paper, they're a really good team," Ames said. "It will be big for us to keep them down on runs. They have a lot of double-digit wins and that type of stuff. If we can win, it will be emotional boost for the second game. We've proved we can beat two top-10 teams. We just need to stay together as a team."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.