Photo by Jeff Yoder
Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – For every team regardless of past success or future expectations reaching the state tournament is a dream.
As little as a few years ago a trip to the state tournament in Des Moines was something that members of the West Branch baseball team could only dream of.
“It’s what I hoped for,” West Branch senior Mitchell Knoop said of an opportunity to play at the state tournament. “It’s something I always hoped would happen but a possibility? Honestly, I don’t know about that one.”
It isn’t hard to understand why Knoop and his West Branch teammates didn’t have much more than a few fading thoughts of playing at Principal Park.
West Branch reached the state tournament in 2012 but hadn’t sniffed a return trip in five seasons since winning a combined 46 games during that stretch.
The Bears hadn’t won more than 12 games or enjoyed a winning season since a 20-win season in 2012 ended with a quarterfinal loss at the 2A state tournament.
With the low points coming in the form of consecutive three- and seven-win campaigns in 2016 and 2017.
“My eighth grade and freshman year we only won 10 games total those two years and everyone said ‘it’s just baseball and we are just out to have fun’,” Junior Tanner Lukavsky said. “Everyone said we were going to lose so we were just trying to have fun.”
The Bears have had plenty of fun this season but the days of West Branch playing losing baseball have been left behind.
West Branch has surged this season under first-year head coach Andy Lapel going 20-12 to surpass its win total from the past two seasons combined.
More importantly the Bears enter Monday’s Class 2A state quarterfinal against second-ranked North Linn (38-5) at 11 a.m. at Principal Park with a new mindset and filled with confidence.
“When I got hired I spoke to a few of the guys and we told them here are our goals and you are going to be pushed like you have never been pushed before,” Lapel said. “We told them right away there are a lot of things that you are going to do that you probably haven’t done before and I think that if you do those things and really take it seriously and really get to work you are going to see early success and that is going to build confidence.”
The success for West Branch started last season.
A young team won five of its final seven games to finish 12-15 falling to eventual 2A semifinalist Wilton in a district final.
“Last year when we lost in the district final it was kind of a punch in the gut,” Knoop said. “We wanted to win that game and this year we started off strong and I think we saw right away that we could do it this year.”
Lapel was hired in the offseason and the buy in from the players came shortly after.
“There were optional workouts for the first few months and just about everyone was there, I was very fortunate to have a lot of buy in right away,” Lapel said. “What I really wanted to hone in on when I came was not to change a whole lot of things but to help them progress from what (previous coach) Rich (Stout) did the past few years.”
It didn’t take long for the new energy in the program to spread.
In past years a few West Branch players were diligent about baseball work during the offseason.
Last winter the indoor facility was West Branch got busier and busier as the offseason wore on.
“I saw a lot more guys working down here in the building with arm care and everything. It was just an all-around different feel,” junior Pete Espensen said. “It gets fun. I could see it grow immensely At first it was required but then guys started to like it and was saw now we are doing something.”
The bounce back season for the Bears started the same way last season ended – with a loss to perennial power Wilton.
However, this time the loss to top-ranked Wilton, 1-0 setback in Wilton, had a different feel.
“That was a confidence boost saying we played Wilton close and the last three years we’ve been getting mercy ruled by them,” Brady Lukavsky said. “That showed us right away we could be good this year.”
West Branch rattled off fie straight wins following the season-opening loss to Wilton, including a 4-3 win at perennial power Cascade.
It was after that win that the confidence started to grow.
West Branch lost to then Class 3A ranked Grinnell 4-0 on June 22.
After that loss West Branch won 11 of its final 13 games with the only losses coming at top-ranked Wilton and 3A Benton Community.
Suddenly a team that had hoped to reach Des Moines someday saw a state tournament berth coming into focus.
“We have played together for a really long time and I always kind of knew that we had a really good chance of bringing this together at the right time,” junior Trey Eagle said. “Coach Lapel has pushed us a lot and really brought our game a long way and it really started to come along toward the end and we want to keep the train rolling.”
The improvement hasn’t just come in the win column.
West Branch is hitting .327 as a team, it’s highest team average since 2012 and more than 60 points higher than last season.
The Bears have 17 home runs after hitting 13 the previous four seasons combined.
“We have so much more fight this year,” junior Matt Paulsen said. “The mental aspect has tremendously jumped from being confident in wining, being confident at the plate, being confident on the mound and in the field. In all aspects of our game the mental part has just risen immensely.”
The improvement has come from everywhere.
West Branch has dropped its team ERA from 3.27 to 2.96. Errors confidence has risen and leadership has improved across the board.
“I think this year the leadership from myself and the rest of the seniors has really taken over,” senior Jaden Hierseman said. “We’ve helped the younger guys cope with what’s going on.”
Three players hit .300 or better last season. That number has doubled this season with three players hitting over .400 enter state tournament action.
Paulsen (.439), Brady Lukavsky (.438) and Eagle (.405) are all hitting at a career-best clip.
With a new coach coming in our mindset changed from last year and we had a lot more confidence,” Paulsen said. “We are working on different stuff that we have never done before and it’s obviously been showing. It’s all a mindset, once we saw we could do it we’ve taken off.”
The immediate goal for West Branch is to keep its season alive on Monday against North Linn.
With just four seniors on the roster and much of its talent returning next season the long-term goal for West Branch is to make winning baseball an expectation.
“Baseball is not what people think of when they think of West Branch but that should change here going forward,” senior Ted Bridges said. “We wanted to build something here for the future and I think we’ve done that.”
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