For the first time in the program’s history, the Puyallup Vikings open a baseball season as reigning Class 4A state champions.
The Vikings will likely face some pressure, and many will question whether they can do it again and if they are just as good as last year’s team — especially considering which players the roster lost to graduation.
But it was a different team that won last year’s title. It was another time in Puyallup baseball that can’t be duplicated because of the uniqueness of the players involved. It’s hard creating that perfect mix of talent and desire to achieve greatness.
But then team captain Brendan Illies speaks up, saying more than anything that can be written about this club.
"Coming back out on to a Puyallup baseball field is definitely something amazing," he said. "We’ve grown together and been a brotherhood for years now. And so for us, it’s just kind of, ‘We’re back on the field to play baseball.’ There’s no pressure on us, rankings don’t matter — we’re just here to play baseball.
"You don’t play the rankings. It’s a mentality of not allowing anything to distract us."
That’s just it — the rankings and the accolades from last year are in the past. This is a new team hungry to prove it can reach the pinnacle of Washington state baseball. It’s an attitude adopted from coach Marc Wiese.
For Puyallup baseball, nothing ever changes.
"We’re going to go out and compete for a state championship — that’s what we do year in and year out," Wiese said. "It doesn’t really feel any different, to be honest. This is a new team and these guys want their own opportunity to create their own legacy."
Time and again Wiese will say the preceding line about his team — it’s who he is as a competitor, never satisfied for what’s already been achieved. That’s the drive Wiese challenges his team to adopt because it’s the only way to play the game.
And through the Puyallup baseball way, these Vikings are sure to leave a mark.
"We’re going to see some success and we’re going to see some guys fail here today," Wiese said as he watched practice last week at Heritage Field. "How do you respond after? That’s it."
Puyallup always has one of the better offenses in the state. The Vikings just know how to swing the bat, which translates in their weekly box scores.
Yet it’s been the glove work — not the bats — that has carried this team to yearly success. No players better emphasize that aspect than catcher Illies and shortstop Zach Needham. These are the first two names many will think of when it comes to Puyallup’s defense, but that list runs deeper than two. In the Vikings’ system, all nine guys better be able to pick it.
"It’s definitely more comfortable being at short … we had a great middle for two years, so there’s nothing to complain about," said Needham, who played next to Levi Jordan (now at the University of Washington) for two seasons. "(I see) lots of good things out of this team."
Communication is what makes a defense great. When teammates talk to each other, mistakes are cut down — it’s the simplest of aspects in the game of baseball, and the Vikings have mastered this game.
During a recent intrasquad game, Needham was walking around the dugout, giving defensive tips to teammates when needed. It’s a savvy move a leader will do to make the team better.
And in the other dugout, Owen Breithaupt was trying to pick up his team, encouraging them to battle as they trailed in the early innings.
"We just hold each other accountable and let them know we got their backs," Breithaupt said.
It’s the only type of leadership suited for Viking baseball.
"Brendan, Zach and Owen are going to be our leaders on this ball club," Wiese said. "They’re ready to get after it. They’re really excited."
"It’s exciting — it’s the most exciting time of the year," Needham added.
Last year’s pitching staff was simply unreal for Puyallup. It’s the major reason the Vikings won their title and finished as a nationally-ranked team.
No position group has more to prove than the pitching staff this year. The talent is there, and they can go out and continue to build off last year — to prove that pitching can and will be a strength of the Vikings.
The rotation will have help with Illies and CJ Krippaehne behind the plate.
"It helps a lot to be familiar with the catcher because he knows how your pitches going to move, what you like to do and what your rhythm is," starter Leif Strom said. "I’ve played with Brendan this fall and I’m really excited for this year."
Strom faced off against junior Austin Stump during the intrasquad game, and both showed stuff that left Wiese and several of his assistants smiling. And the nearly full crowd in the bleachers couldn’t help but chirp with each offspeed pitch that fooled batters.
"I try not to think — I just let whatever I practiced in the past take over," Stump said. "And it worked tonight. Hopefully it will work in the future."
If Strom gets his splitter or Stump has his changeup working like they had it during the intrasquad game, it’s going to be tough on opposing hitters.
"Pitching is always ahead coming into the season. It’s about keeping it going down the stretch," Wiese said.
The season couldn’t get here soon enough for Breithaupt. Having a bittersweet moment on the first day of practice, knowing it was his last year with Puyallup, Breithaupt had a message to leave the younger guys coming into the program.
"I tried to tell everybody to relax a little bit. You know, sometimes it’s some of these kids’ first day out here, so they’re a little wound up in a bunch," he said. "They’re a little wired up. You just tell people to relax and play baseball."
On the first day of practice, it was Breithaupt’s passion that boiled over, forcing Wiese to settle his captain down.
"I had to talk to him about chilling out a little bit and playing within himself," Wiese said. "Love (that fire)."
Breithaupt embodies the attitude of his Puyallup teammates.