Prep Baseball & Softball

Few rival Squalicum’s extraordinary defense

Cedarcrest had just doubled down the left-field line off Storm pitcher David Stealy after Squalicum had opened its Class 2A District Tournament third-place game with a first-inning lead.

Then shortstop Ernie Yake turned in what arguably was his finest play of the year.

The Red Wolves clean-up hitter sent a hard grounder barreling toward third baseman Tim Lann. The ball ricocheted off the heel of Lann’s glove, popped high in the air as Yake charged in. The Storm shortstop snagged the ball as it descended and in one smooth motion fired the ball over to first baseman Drew Segren, who made a beautiful pick to beat the runner and stem Cedarcrest’s momentum.

A true web gem.

“That was a major-league play right there,” Squalicum coach John Inge said, “and that killed the inning and was kind of a back-breaker for those guys.”

Maybe nothing as flashy as that play, but truth is the Storm has made a catalog of highlight-reel worthy plays this season. Inge, following the win over Cedarcrest last weekend, said he’d put his defense up against any Class 2A defense in the state, and the work Squalicum has done backing up its pitchers is a large reason for the team’s first state tournament berth in program history.

The Storm (18-6) open state with a matchup against Sequim at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 23, at Joe Martin Field.

Squalicum’s standout defense starts with the play of middle infielders Yake and second baseman Kyle Little, a duo operating in their third season together.

No one on the team works harder as his craft than Yake, Inge said. The Storm coach coined the phrase “cage rat” to describe the junior infielder, trying to find an equivalent to basketball’s gym rat saying. Yake is constantly taking extra ground balls before and after practice.

Rarely does a bouncing ball fool Little, and Inge called the senior infielder “phenomenal.” Yake’s and Little’s chemistry is rock-solid, and as far as Inge is concerned they play the best middle infield of any other tandem in the Northwest Conference.

“We’ve both grown defensively, and since my freshman year and his sophomore year it’s been progressing at a good rate,” Yake said in a phone interview, “so we feel good with each other in the middle.”

Squalicum has only given up more than four runs in a game once this season, and 17 times the Storm has limited its opponents to two or less runs. That’s a testament to pitchers Stealy, Harper Moore and Connor Sage, but certainly the defense as well.

“We know our pitchers on the mound are working hard, and we do our best to back them up,” Little said in a phone interview. “We haven’t lost a game this season because of our defense. We’ve lost a few because of our hitting. The bats will come around, but defense is what you can always count on for us.”

There’s much more than Yake and Little responsible for the error-free ball Squalicum has grown accustom to.

Center fielder Carter Nickelson has consistently impressed coaches and teammates with his ability to track balls and chase them down in the gaps, Lann has become much-improved Inge said at third and Segren plays a strong first base.

Catcher Ben Tripp has a near 50 percent throw-out rate with baserunners attempting to steal second, and one of the reasons Inge opted to start Sage on the mound against Sehome in a district game last weeks is due to his ability to defend opposing team’s small-ball so well.

“It’s been really big” said Inge of his team’s defensive play this spring, “because David Stealy is a guy who can strikeout seven, eight, nine, 10 guys, but Harper and Connor are contact pitchers. We want them to be. ... We really want to be able to rely on our defense. That makes it easier on the coaches and makes it easier on the pitchers that we can trust that.”

The Storm always has been a defensive-minded ball club under Inge, but the Squalicum coach gave assistant Vern Yake a lot of credit for the defensive improvements the team has made.

Inge and Vern played together years ago for legendary coach Mal Walton, and Inge said Vern truly offers that attention to detail and consistent drilling synonymous with Mal Walton-style ball.