Lightning wins as one
Players credit family atmosphere for baseball championship
A.J. Stockwell met Evan DeCovich in front of the dugout during Eastview’s state baseball championship celebration and hugged the senior pitcher.
“You’re a hoss, bro,” Stockwell said.
He didn’t need to say anything else. The Lightning’s first state high school title almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible without DeCovich, who pitched 14 2/3 innings over three Class AAA tournament games, allowing just one run.
At the same time, DeCovich said his success wouldn’t have been possible without his team.
“At the start of the season, I felt like I needed to do it all,” DeCovich said. “We struggled a little bit defensively at the beginning. Later in the season, I realized the defense had my back and I didn’t have to try to strike everybody out.”
Eastview’s 1-0 victory over Bemidji in the Class AAA championship game Monday at Target Field might have been the ultimate example of pitcher and defense working together. DeCovich was working on two days’ rest after throwing 98 pitches in two state tournament games Friday. If he could make the Lumberjacks put the ball in play and avoid deep counts, all the better.
DeCovich threw a two-hitter and needed just 88 pitches in a game that took 1 hour, 17 minutes to play. He got nine outs on fly balls, six on grounders and struck out five hitters. Eastview catcher Ryan Reger threw out one Bemidji runner attempting to steal.
Only one of Bemidji’s three baserunners advanced past first. The Lightning did not commit an error (neither did the Lumberjacks).
“We always have confidence in our pitching, and Evan has pitched great all year,” senior outfielder Chris Narum said. “By the end of the season, we were hitting better and playing good defense. It all came together for us.”
Eastview center fielder Brennan EspindaBanick raced into the gap to rob Bemidji’s Mitch Hendricks of an extra-base hit in the fourth inning, a play DeCovich referred to as a game-changer. Bemidji got a runner to third base with two outs in the sixth inning, but DeCovich got the next hitter to fly out to center.
DeCovich helped supply the only run he needed by leading off the second inning with a double. E.J. Stevens went in as a courtesy runner and advanced to third on Patrick Strey’s sacrifice bunt. Narum then drew a walk and stole second. Stevens scored on Stockwell’s grounder to shortstop.
Eastview (22-5) was the third team from Dakota County to play in a state high school championship game at Target Field, which opened in 2010. Burnsville advanced to the Class AAA final the previous two years.
The Lightning’s victory also means the South Suburban Conference has had the state large-school baseball champion each season of its two-year existence. Burnsville won Class AAA in 2011.
But that doesn’t mean Eastview went into its first state baseball tournament appearance as a favorite. Eastview was 16th among Class AAA teams in the final Minnesota-Scores.net computer ranking. The other seven state tourney qualifiers all were ranked higher.
If that wasn’t enough motivation, “it kind of fired us up to see the Star Tribune pick Bemidji to beat us 6-2” in the championship game, Narum said.
Another oddity: No Eastview players were selected for this weekend’s Lions All-Star Series in Chaska.
But the Lightning believes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The team’s motto, “Ohana,” is a Hawaiian word meaning “family.” The seniors have been on the same teams for almost a decade and won a couple of state championships in youth baseball.
“It’s unreal. I’ve never been a part of something like this,” said senior shortstop Scott Nelson. “It really is like a family, and I think it helped settle our nerves today. We were excited to be here, but we were able to do our thing and play our game.”
The baseball championship is Eastview High School’s second in a boys sport; the first was in lacrosse earlier this month. Although the school has been open only 15 years, the baseball championship isn’t an overnight success story.
“It feels like it’s been a long time coming,” said Tom Strey, who became Eastview’s head coach in 2001 after 10 seasons as an assistant at Apple Valley.
“There are a lot of good people in the community, and a lot of effort went into this,” said Strey, who also coached the current seniors in youth baseball. “A lot of the players’ dads have served as coaches. We developed our own (American) Legion team, which gave more of our kids an opportunity to play at that level. It really was a community effort.”
It fostered a belief that every player, from the ace pitcher to the last man on the bench, had something to contribute. That’s why they called it Ohana.