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STATE HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL TOURNAMENTS: Unfinished business ... Lake City, the 2023 state 5A runner-up, has eyes on program's first title since 2016

| May 15, 2024 1:25 AM

By JASON ELLIOTT

Sports writer

The players know.

So do the coaches. 

There’s some unfinished business that needs to be taken care of.

And this time, the Lake City baseball team intends to take care of it.

At the start of the season, Lake City — the 2023 state 5A runner-up — split games with Highland High of Pocatello in the Mountain View tournament in Meridian, then doubleheaders with Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.

“At the start of the season, each at-bat and swing weighed more,” Timberwolf senior Cooper Smith said. “We weren’t living in the moment and were trying to live in the future and win a state title on each play. And our coaches understood what we were doing wrong.”

Lake City (19-5) has since won five straight games, and nine of the last 10, including a 9-1 win over Coeur d’Alene in the regional championship game on May 7 to advance to state. The Timberwolves open state at the College of Idaho’s Wolfe Field in Caldwell on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. PDT against Coeur d'Alene (17-10), which advanced by winning a play-in game against Capital High of Boise.

As for the closing run, it has come down to making fewer mistakes, both defensively and at the plate.

“We’re playing better baseball,” Smith said. “At the beginning of the year, with last year and how everything went, we had high expectations for this year. And we still do. But I feel like we’re a team that’s better playing loose and playing how we know to play. At the start of the year, we put a lot of pressure on each other, especially ourselves. And that created a weird sense.”

“I think we’re playing our best baseball right now,” second-year Lake City coach Mike Criswell said. “Our defense is going to have to be top notch to compete. A lot of these guys want to finish the season the right way. Right now, they’re very at ease and not pushing anything. They know what they need to do.”

Lake City has also dealt with season-ending injuries to projected starting pitcher Chris Reynolds and first baseman Cole Stoddard.

“It’s been a struggle not really being able to play,” Reynolds said. “It’s been awesome to watch our team succeed.”

Reynolds underwent surgery in December to have UCL internal bracing after tearing ligaments in his right elbow last season.

“It’s been six months right now and I’m just now starting to get back into throwing,” Reynolds said. “But I’m excited to be back so soon.”

Reynolds can still run, which he does as a courtesy runner.
“Right now, I’m usually running for Smitty when he gets on base,” Reynolds said. “It’s been a struggle sometimes, but it’s fun to be out here with my friends and hanging out with them. It’s a different perspective of baseball and I’m learning a lot of new things. Just by being a spectator, I’m learning a lot. Honestly, it’s been fun. I wish I was back playing, but it’s been fun.”

Reynolds, who has signed with Tacoma Community College, is one month into throwing again.

“I won’t be able to pitch until September-ish,” Reynolds said. “I’m just now in Week 4 of being able to throw and it’s feeling great from 75 feet. But it’s going to be a while until I’m on the mound and throwing full speed.”

Stoddard had surgery for a torn labrum last week.

Even without Reynolds, Lake City has depth on the mound, with Cooper Reese (New Mexico State), AJ Currie (Big Bend Community College) and Nate Weatherhead in the starting rotation.

Weatherhead struck out eight and allowed two hits in a 8-0 shutout in the regional opener against Post Falls on May 7.

“I was pretty confident going into the game,” Weatherhead said. “I’d thrown a lot against Post Falls and if I’m in the zone, I can usually be pretty effective against them.”

Early in the season, Lake City had its pitchers go fewer innings to get more guys time on the mound.

“It’s been a little stressful at times with shorter outings in five day cycles,” Weatherhead said. “But I kind of like that my arm feels like it’s in midseason shape.”

As for the state opener, it didn’t matter to Smith who was on the other side.

“We’re going to go out and play at our best and give it the best shot we can to win each game,” Smith said. “We really don’t care if it’s Coeur d’Alene, Highland or Owyhee. We’re just going to go out and compete.”

Owyhee and Highland are on the same side of the bracket as Lake City and Coeur d’Alene.

“For us, it’s just another baseball game,” Smith said. “We play loosely and pride ourselves on taking each swing like it’s our last. We’re going to give our best effort. As our coaches have said, we’re only going to get so many more pitches and at-bats. We’ve got to live in the moment and where we’re at right now.”

Whether it’s the pitching or offense carrying the load.

“Sometimes, it’s our pitching that stands out, or it’s a hitting dominated game,” Weatherhead said. “We seem to be at our best when we pitch well and it gives our hitters confidence to hit for us.”

“Their baseball IQ is really high,” Criswell said. “They’re always asking to do more, hit more and take more infield. They always want to stay after practice and take extra swings. They’re very knowledgeable, and they just don’t want to quit.”

Weatherhead, who has started in five of his 10 appearances this season, is leaning toward continuing his playing career at the Community Colleges of Spokane next fall. Weatherhead has struck out 33 hitters in 29.2 innings this season.

Smith, who is batting .443 (27 for 61) with 24 RBIs and two home runs, has signed with Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College.

“Right now, I’m more focused on the present and the next few weeks,” Smith said. “Last year, Chris Ricard of Lewiston had a great freshman year at Scottsdale. He reached out and told me I was a great competitor and he loved playing against me and wondered if I’d consider coming to Scottsdale. I did a little research on the program, went on a visit and it kind of stuck with me. It really felt like home.”

And after finishing so close last year, Smith feels that this team is ready to bring home the school’s first title since 2016. Lake City won its first state title in 2007 and also played in the title game in 2004 and ‘08.

“Last year was great,” Smith said. “Getting to play in a state tournament for the first time in my high school career was great and surreal. The nerves were going, but this year, it’s a little different. Last year, we were hoping to get over a few games and lost early in the season to Eagle. When we saw them again, we weren’t nervous and knew we could beat them. This year, we’ve got a job to finish and have some unfinished business. We’ve got something to take care of.”

    JASON ELLIOTT/Press Lake City senior Chris Reynolds does some long toss drills during Friday's practice at Lake City High.
 
 
    JASON ELLIOTT/Press Lake City senior pitcher Nate Weatherhead plays long toss with a teammate during Friday's practice.