There was a time, not so long ago, when any deficit felt insurmountable, when losing streaks came in bunches and run production was far more an aberration than a sure thing.
Success has evaded senior Rudy Nolasco since he began his Blaine baseball career as a freshman. The same goes for any Borderite who’s taken the diamond since 2012.
Blaine has gone 3-33 in Northwest Conference play the past three seasons. But while the losses have piled up, Sean Linville, who coached the team in 2013 and ’14, Larry Hoffman, who for two years was Linville’s assistant before taking over this season, and the rest of the Borderites’ coaching staff were molding a club they knew could be competitive.
Midway through this spring’s baseball season, the Borderites are proving they no longer can be taken lightly.
“We’ve been working at this basically for three years,” Hoffman explained in a phone interview. “A lot of kids have been here all three years. Some played as freshmen and sophomores. Basically we’ve been trying to get them to buy into not accepting failure, and so it’s been a three-year process. The kids have taken a bunch of lumps over the last two years, and I do mean a bunch of lumps.”
Already in five league games the Borderites (7-5, 4-1 NWC) own more league wins then they earned the past three seasons combined.
They find themselves in an unfamiliar, yet welcoming position, exiting spring break tied for the conference lead in the Class 2A playoff race.
Blaine’s three-year, program-elevating process has largely been an exercise in confidence building, which has been accelerated by the players’ commitment to becoming a winning ball club, Hoffman said.
The Borderties have capitalized on summer ball experience, and they’ve shown a willingness to put extra time in the batting cages.
“This is the first time in a number of years for the first two weeks of practice, at the end of practice some of them would stay around in the dark taking ground balls,” said Hoffman, who deflected credit, saying he’s simply trying to carry over what Linville began establishing. “A couple guys go to the cages and get swings in. I’d never really been exposed to anything like that until this year. It’s refreshing to see.”
Hoffman said Linville preached mental toughness, constantly imploring his club to find ways to scratch and claw out wins.
The Borderites have adapted that mantra this season, and Nolasco said Blaine’s initial shot of confidence came during its first league contest on March 26 against Lynden — a 7-4 win
“When we started, we played Lynden at home and lost 4-2 (in the second game of the season) and didn’t hit the ball well,” Nolasco explained. “In conference play, the very first game at Lynden, we went over there with a lot of confidence and said, ‘We are going to beat them,’ I think that was a big boost that got our confidence up, hitting the ball so well against Lynden, which has always been pretty good.”
Blaine has won five of its last seven since, and while the Borderites have improved in all facets, strong pitching has carried the club.
Junior Jonathan Starcer, who Hoffman described as a strikeout pitcher, has been tremendous, pitching his way to a 4-0 record. Senior Cody Gobbato, who offers more of a controlled style, is 1-2, but Hoffman said he easily could be 3-0. Nolasco has served as a solid innings eater, and sophomores Anthony Ball and Eric Davis also have contributed.
The Borderites’ offense, while not overpowering, is averaging a run more per game than last season, and Hoffman said the team’s top hitters are averaging 50 to 100 more points than last spring.
Starcer and sophomore Jalen Kortlever have set the tone atop the lineup, and Jared Vogee, Ball and Josh Fakkema all are enjoying breakout years at the plate.
“Offensively, we are way better than we were last year,” Hoffman said. “Last year we were one or two guys deep that even had a chance to get a hit, and this year we have six or seven that are hitting the ball. A lot of it goes to the kids’ commitment. They wanted to get better.”
Nowadays, a different feel permeates throughout Blaine’s ball club.
No longer are dugouts eerily silent when adversity strikes, and the Borderites go into games expecting to win. Nolasco endorsed the welcoming feeling.
“It feels pretty good knowing that in the past few years the team always felt like the underdog, ‘Oh, wow, we have to play such a good powerhouse,’” Nolasco said, “and know it feels good to be on the other side having confidence in yourself. Every time you get a win you get more confidence, and that keeps you going.”
The Borderites aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves. Their preseason goal was to finish .500 and to earn a district playoff berth. Both seem more than plausible, but regardless of how Blaine finishes the season, the program appears to be on the upswing.