(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
Hard-hitting Quartzite Bombers look like Gehrig, the Babe, Ted Williams, Cy Young and Ty Cobb rolled into one…
Don’t let the blistering dial-up internet in Chewelah fool you, this town is still very much a throwback to a simpler time. The one constant thread from a bygone era of black and white photos and the modern age has been baseball. It is America’s older sport and rich with history and legendary players that were probably maimed in a mining accident somewhere.
Chewelah’s baseball team this year has put in a historic season. They won the league title, rather handily, and are on a 16-game winning streak. If this were the 1920s, Chewelah’s speakeasy’s would be abuzz with talk about how they might even be able to beat teams from the mythical western side of the state. It is the Cougars first time in the 2Bs, dropping down from the 1As and so far the change has been a windfall of league titles for the school in Fool’s Prairie.
It’s small-school baseball and it’s something to behold. Chewelah feels right at home playing against schools located in wheat fields, timber country and probably old mining towns. Not big schools like Colville which have fancy moving cranes over their timber mills.
This Saturday, Chewelah will play Colfax (the pride of Whitman County) at 12:30 at Medical Lake High School (the pride of the West Plains) with a chance to advance to the district championship game. The top three teams from districts will advance to the state regionals and hopefully historic Wheeler Field (they have urinals in the dugouts!) in Centralia for the state final four.
The Cougars will bring a No. 7 state ranking into their game against an equally as good Colfax squad (Let’s hope their pitching isn’t as good as their ticket-giving police force). But it is not like Chewelah hasn’t played against 2B powers before. Their 16-3 overall record is the best mark under third-year coach Sawyer Bardwell, who has turned the Cougars into a well-oiled machine. But much like a throwback baseball team, he has to manage his day job – a teacher at Gess Elementary – before managing Chewelah. Sadly, he doesn’t go full throwback and wear a suit in the dugout like old managers. Bardwell was recently named the NE 2B North League Coach of the Year.
“It is nice to be honored as coach of the year, however I have a great coaching staff that deserve a piece of this award as well,” Bardwell said. “I have been blessed to have Ken Chartrey and Matt Robertson with me the whole way to share their knowledge and expertise of baseball with myself and the players.”
The coaching shines through in games as the Cougars can seemingly score without getting a hit. Much like the dead ball era – the Quartzite boys will bunt, steal, steal home, sac fly and probably get into dugout fisticuffs if they must. Leading the charge is a farmboy, Carl Oman, who serves as the team’s catcher and one of the fastest kids on the team. He’s leading the team in hitting with a .464 average and 24 runs scored. On the side, he also plays guard in basketball and cross country. You know, that rare catcher/cross country runner combination that all MLB scouts are looking for.
Then right behind him is Johnny Larson. While having the best baseball name possible, Johnny has to go by Johnny and not John. John doesn’t fit for the spry shortstop who is hitting .463 and can bunt, outrun a throw to first, steal second, take third and run home before you know what has happened. Larson also has 14 RBI despite being in the No. 2 spot of the lineup.
“Carl is by far the best catcher in the league offensively and defensively, and Johnny has been the top shortstop in the league,” Bardwell said. “We have many others that just missed the cut for all league and I am looking forward to see what we can do the rest of the year.”
There are plenty of other standouts in the lineup. Both Kubik boys are dangerous at the plate and Jake George has more power with his bat than a steam engine. Sam Triplett just gets on base and Jake Jeanneret drives in runs like he throws touchdown passes as the Cougars’ QB. Despite these guys not getting the all-league nod, the other four that did get named the league’s best players.
The makeup of the team is an odd assortment of farm boys, sons of truck drivers and loggers, cousins, brothers, a few eighth graders and anything else they can cram in the dugout. Chewelah’s baseball field lacks a press box so players have to run the scoreboard themselves. Since NE Washington winters last as long as a bad case of the Spanish Flu, players didn’t get out on a baseball field until about halfway through the season.
“I am very proud of the boys that were named all league,” Bardwell said. “They worked hard and had a great league season which is rolling into the post season.”
But Chewelah’s greatness wouldn’t be anywhere without the pitching of Andrew Sweat and Justin Rollis. Both gobble up innings, strike out batters (104 strikeouts combined) and keep the opposing teams off the scoreboard. The Cougars allow precious few baserunners, sometimes giving people flashback to the era when the baseball was made out of a goat’s bladder or something and grandstands were made out of wood from the Civil War.
Sweat has a ridiculous 0.93 ERA while Rollis has an equally defunct 1.66 ERA. That’s lower than the stock market in the 1930s. Both can probably show a cow at the fair with the best of them. Rumor has it the team’s post-game spreads include prime rib and home-grown corn.
Thanks to this pitching, great fielding and hitting/manufacturing runs, the Cougars were able to get past state power St. George’s and NWC (who had the league MVP Gunner Kuehl). Pitching duels are something people talk about in the majors but Chewelah had a few of them this year.
“Gunner Kuehl is an above average pitcher,” Bardwell said. “He has good velocity and a very good breaking ball. It took everything we had to beat him 2-0 a few weeks back. That was the best high school pitchers dual that I have seen in a long time. Sweat and Kuehl threw great games and both defenses played excellent, we were able to out last them and win in the 8th inning.”
Their opponent this Saturday, Colfax, sports a 17-4 record and has allowed just 69 runs on the season. They’ll start at 12:30 p.m. and if you can make the drive in the old Model-T, make sure you’re prepared for some excellent small town baseball.