Nolan Soete has represented the old guard of baseball for as long as he can remember.
He has the pedigree to prove it.
He has the scowl to reinforce it.
But these days, Soete is all smiles as the first-year coach of the Pacific Lutheran University baseball team — after spending nine seasons as an assistant under longtime coach Geoff Loomis.
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Under heavy expectations, the Lutes survived a rocky start to win the Northwest Conference tournament April 24 in Spokane, and earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
That draw came out Monday — PLU is the sixth seed in the West Region at Avista Stadium on the Whitworth University campus in Spokane. They play top-seeded Trinity University of Texas on Wednesday.
This all came after the Lutes — the NWC preseason favorites after a run in the national tournament in 2015 — started 2-4 in conference play. But they went 13-4 over the final 17 games, including a two-game sweep of host Whitworth to win the NWC tournament.
“It’s not how you start — it’s how you finish,” Soete said. “We had unrealistic lofty goals for our season, and we had to
The 34-year-old Soete is a remarkable story in his own right.
A two-sport standout at South Kitsap High School, Soete played for two of the most scrupulous yet successful prep coaches in the South Sound — Ed Fisher in football, and Elton Goodwin in baseball.
Mediocrity was not tolerated — and their records showed that. Fisher boasted a 192-44 record in 22 seasons, including a Class 4A title in 1994. And Goodwin won 491 games and three state titles in baseball in his 28 seasons.
“As a player, I always enjoyed it when a coach was tough on you,” Soete said. “I learned if a coach was hard on you, it meant he cared about you.”
Soete arrived at PLU as a hard-hitting first baseman — one whose college career was briefly interrupted by a rare disease called aplastic anemia where the body stops producing new blood cells, and requires blood transfusions and stem-cell transplants as treatment.
He returned, and finished his PLU playing career in 2005 for Loomis.
Two years later, Loomis was interested in bringing back a couple of alumni on his staff. Soete was one of his hires.
In 2009, Soete showed to be a persuasive recruiter and effective game manager, and was eventually named associate head coach.
“He started taking a more active role in PLU baseball,” Loomis said. “We knew he had all the intangibles.”
When Loomis left last June for the University of Portland, Soete was given the PLU top job on an interim basis.
“To a certain extent, the only thing I learned from Loomis is that you constantly have to adapt — especially nowadays,” Soete said. “If you don’t, you die in the coaching business.”
Soete is a mountain of a man: He is all of 6-foot-2. He has peering eyes and an expression much like Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
“When you see him, you get intimidated sometimes,” PLU infielder Tyler Thompson said.
When a rash of injuries hit the team, causing the Lutes to get off to a rough start to the season, there was plenty of worry behind the coach’s stone-cold glares.
“I gave up a good teaching job to roll the dice and take a shot at this job,” Soete said. “After the slow start, I thought this could go south. But as a head coach, you can’t show the emotions of that.”
After those long days early on, the only ones he would talk to about the struggles were his wife, Jessica, or his father, Harry.
“Personally the only way I know how to handle stuff like that is hard work,” Soete said. “To try and dig out of the hole.”
He showed signs of stress, but never lost his cool, Thompson said.
“It was hard on him,” Thompson said. “A lot of it came down to us, the older guys, not doing our jobs. But we knew it was going to get better.”
Soete and Thompson agreed that the team’s turning point came on a road series at George Fox University in late March.
The Lutes were blown out in the first game, 10-0. But they rallied later to take the second game, 12-6. In the final game the following day, PLU won 4-2 in extra innings after trailing 2-0 in the eighth inning.
“After that, I don’t know what it was,” Thompson said. “We flipped the switch.”
PLU went 3-1 on its next trip to California, then came home to sweep cross-town rival Puget Sound in three games.
After that, the Lutes were well on their way to finishing strong. And as for Soete, he had his interim tag lifted.
“I am happy for the players most of all,” Soete said. “And as a rookie head coach, especially when you take over a very successful program, you want to continue it in the right direction. That has been very gratifying for me, especially since I played here.”