The Bonney Lake High baseball team surprised many last year on its run to the Class 3A state championship game.
Despite ultimately coming up short in a 12-0 loss to O’Dea, many who watched the stretch run of South Puget Sound League 3A league play last season didn’t strongly consider Bonney Lake in the conversation of teams to make it to the championship. It was more about teams ahead of them in the standings: Decatur (16-8) and Auburn Mountainview (15-10). Bonney Lake finished in third with an 18-10 overall record.
But the SPSL prides itself on being one of better leagues in state, so is it surprising that the Panthers were one win away from a state title?
"Bonney Lake’s had a lot of successful teams," captain Taylor Graham said. "The program has always been good. We’ve a great foundation with (coach) Olson."
Last year’s title run was four years in the making as the core of eight seniors gelled together at the right time.
"We’ve had the same core for four years. Those guys started when they were freshman out of necessity," Bonney Lake coach Mike Olson said. "That’s been our team, that’s been our personalities. It’s been those guys (that) we’re a known commodity."
This year is different, Olson admits, as the Panthers have a lot of questions to answer with such a talented group gone. But Olson and his staff have a large contingent of younger players that have them excited.
"Now here we are,” Olson said. “We get to start over again. It’s fun. It’s exciting."
Bonney Lake is in a transitional phase right now. With a large roster turnover on varsity, Olson sees that his role players are ready to make that natural transition into everyday starters.
"We’ve got two things kind of happening at once. We’ve got guys ready to take over at the varsity level," Olson said. "We had guys that filled roles and were role players for us, but weren’t the core. Those guys are excited to make this their team."
It’s not the returning players from varsity and JV that has Olson and his group excited, it’s the newcomers.
Early last week Olson was pleased to see not just a large participation from the freshman, but that the talent level matched the sheer amount who came out.
"At the same time, we got an awesome class of freshman coming in," Olson said. "It’s kind of an influx of talent … we’ve had one freshman that’s made varsity right out of the shoot. That’s the first time in our program that’s happened, with the exception of last year’s entire group."
That talent has also caught the eyes of the seniors as they too notice something about this young, incoming squad: They’re rats.
"I like that I see a lot of dirty uniforms — nothing’s more beautiful than that," Taylor said. "They’re playing the game the right way."
The talent is deep at Bonney Lake.
The first week has Olson distracted, as he’s preoccupied on taking care of younger players. So he’s placed the responsibility on his captains to keep things in order.
The weight of captaincy for Bonney Lake rests on the shoulders of Taylor Graham, Stephan Hansen and Ethan McElderry, as they continue to establish the Panther way while creating a different personality in the dugouts.
There’s no doubt about it, expectations will remain high.
"I have high expectations. I mean, we did lose a lot of key from last year’s team, but we have a lot of key returners to make another run," McElderry said. "We were out every Monday and Friday (in fall) throwing, and then Wednesdays we were at Diamond (Sports Training Center)."
It’s about creating that camaraderie early, before the season, and in some cases just reconnecting with friends during a long offseason.
"There’s no offseason in baseball. You’re always working for the next season," Graham said.
It’s easy going out and playing for your friends in tough times. The playoffs are the tough times, and last year’s Panther squad was the pinnacle example of players coming together to make a deep run at the state title.
It’s a new year and a new team at Bonney Lake. And no one encapsulates what a new season and a fresh start for the Panthers means more than Hansen.
"It’s a great feeling. We’re filling their shoes, and there’s no place I’d rather be," Hansen said. "They did some great stuff here, but we’re ready to do better."