The Kentlake High baseball team spent pretty much the entire spring on an emotional high, winning game after game en route to a state finals berth at Safeco Field.
On that same diamond, however, coach Jason Evans was in the midst of an emotional roller coaster ride, stemming from the loss of his father Dale, who passed away April 14 after a short bout with lung cancer.
The loss of Dale Evans, as difficult as it was for Jason, served as inspiration.
Inspiration for Jason, who remained a rock under immense emotional distress. And an inspiration to a team Jason Evans simply wouldn’t — and couldn’t, for his dad’s sake — let down, despite losing his father just a short while into the season.
The loss of Dale Evans remained with the Falcons throughout the season. In the dugout before each game, Jason posted an 8 x 10 picture of his father, to whom the Falcons dedicated their season.
“It was a special season in a way. The kids learned a lot about life, not about just playing baseball,” said the third-year Kentlake coach, who admitted that having the team to lean on during his father’s ordeal was therapeutic. “A lot of different aspects happened that will carry over and help them become men. I cried in front of them. They see that and they cried with me.
“It brought us a lot closer together. I wasn’t this hard-nosed coach,” Evans said. “There are feelings inside of me too.”
Many of those feelings, especially when talking about the man who taught him the finer nuances of the game, brought nothing but smiles from the Kentlake coach this season.
It was a season that not only eclipsed the best ever in school history, but blew its doors off by a wide margin. And because of that, Evans was selected as The Reporter’s Coach of the Year.
“When he first told us about his dad, he came out to practice and made us meet in the outfield,” first baseman Lewi Larson said. “The whole team was silent, kids were in tears … he was in tears. We talked as a team how we needed to do this for he and his son Marcus (the team’s catcher).”
The Falcons did it with an array of power offense, power arms and air-tight defense.
Picked to finish among the top half of the South Puget Sound League North Division in a preseason poll, the Falcons wasted little time making a statement, winning 11 of their first 12 games.
The hot start landed Kentlake sixth in the state polls.
“(Jason) drove us all year to be better, work hard and keep our goals in line,” shortstop Bobby Joe Tannehill said. “(The loss of Dale Evans) made us work a lot harder, it gave us something and someone to work for.”
And work, they did.
Kentlake established a new school record in wins with 20, earned a share of the South Puget Sound League North Division title, captured a district title and advanced to the Class 4A state championship game for the first time.
Not bad for a group that was selected to finish among the league contenders, but not as the top dog.
“They all kind of had the same common goal as I did,” Jason Evans said. “When we dedicated the season, there wasn’t one kid who questioned it. They wore wristbands with my dad’s initials on it, we had the dugout picture … it was just a very special group of kids.”
A group of kids who rose to the occasion of a tight game, winning 11 of 13 contests decided by three runs or fewer. A group that didn’t flinch in the face of pressure, knocking off previously top-ranked Puyallup for the South Puget Sound League title, 4-3.
And a group that showed immense power, clubbing five home runs in its 23-2 lambasting of Bothell in a state quarterfinal game.
Along the way, six players earned all-league accolades, another school record.
And though the ride is just recently over, Jason Evans can’t help but look to next year, when the Falcons will return all but three starters — catcher Marcus Evans, second baseman Zac Sturza and outfielder Matt Smith are the only departing seniors.
“We’re definitely looking forward to next year,” Jason Evans said.
But in looking back one more time …
“This was a very exceptional season. Winning the SPSL was a first. Winning regionals, that was a first, being final four in state, that was a first,” Jason Evans said. “And I think it was a first that these guys matured and saw life as a whole. Not just a two-month baseball season.
“They’re all like my own son.”
More than just coaches
Jason Evans guided the Kentlake baseball team to a historic finish this season. And did so despite the loss of his father, Dale Evans, in mid-April.
But there were plenty of other impressive coaching performances throughout Covington and Maple Valley this past school year.
Below is a look at a few others who were in the running for The Reporter’s Coach of the Year honors.
RUSS HAYDEN, TAHOMA BASEBALL
If ever a coach gets the most from his players, it’s Russ Hayden.
Tahoma’s longtime leader graduated most of his top talent from a year ago, including five Division I signees. The Bears weren’t even selected in the preseason coaches’ poll to make the playoffs.
But Hayden has turned Tahoma High into a virtual baseball factory. As always, the veteran coach of 16 years churned out another winner, guiding the Bears to a share of the South Puget Sound League North Division title and a third straight state berth.
Tahoma went on to post a solid 16-7 overall record and help Hayden earn his 200th coaching victory, which he accomplished on April 18 with a 9-8 win against Kentridge.
SCOTT SIMMONS, KENTLAKE GIRLS BASKETBALL
Though Kentlake’s girls basketball team didn’t advance to the state tournament, Simmons delivered what likely was his finest coaching performance.
Kentlake entered the season with heavy hearts as teammate and friend Carly Stowell passed away in the previous April from an acute cardiac arrhythmia while playing for her AAU team in North Carolina.
Simmons, who proved coaches do considerably more than teach X’s and O’s, organized the Carly Stowell Winter Classic tournament at Kentlake in late December. Before the Falcons were to play Foss in the second of two opening-night games, Simmons delivered an emotionally-stirring speech to a mostly-filled gymnasium. As the season progressed, he was as much a counselor and friend to his pupils as he was a coach.
Kentlake lost leading scorer Maggie Henley in early January to a season-ending injury, but Simmons still managed to guide this group to a 12-13 overall record along with berths in the league and district tournaments.
AARON RADFORD, KENTWOOD SOCCER
Maybe they ought to pick Radford’s teams to finish somewhere other than first place every season. That’s what happened this school year. Last fall, perennial power Tahoma was the choice to win the SPSL North Division title. But after an early-season loss to the Bears, Kentwood went on an 8-0-1 streak to close out the league schedule, finishing at 10-1-3 and edging Tahoma by one point for the division title. The Conquerors went all the way to the Class 4A state quarterfinals before their season ended. This spring, all of the talk before the boys season kicked off was about Jefferson. But Kentwood beat the Raiders twice to win the division title with a 9-3-2 record and 29 points, two better than TJ. The Conquerors then scored a 3-1 victory against Tahoma in the district playoffs, their first win against the Bears in 10 games, dating back five years. In so doing, they punched their first ticket to state since 2002.
KYLE JONES, KENTLAKE SOCCER
For 10 years, the last game of the regular season was always the last game of the season period for the Falcons’ boys soccer team.
That all changed this spring. With Jones in his first year at the coaching helm, the Falcons started quickly, survived some bumps along the way, and nailed down the program’s first-ever postseason berth. Kentlake wound up with a 7-4-3 record and 24 points in SPSL North Division play, enough to claim the fourth and final playoff spot.
The Falcons fell short in a shootout against Emerald Ridge in the SPSL playoffs, with the Jaguars winning the penalty-kick tiebreaker, 2-1 after the teams went scoreless through 80 minutes of regulation play and 10 minutes of overtime. That ended Kentlake’s season at 8-5-4. But Jones loses just four seniors off of this year’s team, which means his team likely will be counted among the playoff contenders when next spring arrives.