Brian Dudley is confident his players don’t remember much. It’s been 10 years since Wapahani last played in the state baseball championship game. While some of the current players were present for the game, they were young children back then. He’s certain they remember the overall experience, but he doubts they’ve retained many of the nuances of the 2-0 loss to Hammond Bishop Noll that left the Raiders as the state runner-up.
Despite being so young the last time Wapahani went to Victory Field, the players on the 2014 team have made it to the state championship game themselves. Wapahani (No. 1 Class 2A, 29-4) will face Evansville Mater Dei (No. 7 Class 2A, 23-9) in the Class 2A state championship game at 4 p.m. today at Victory Field in Indianapolis.
Senior second baseman Luke Snider is one of those who attended the 2004 game. His cousins, Kyle and Nathan Snider, were both on that state runner-up squad. He remembers being happy to be there. He remembers going back to his youth team and talking about a desire to play at Victory Field one day himself. But he admits many of the memories from that day have faded in the last decade.
“I remember I painted my chest and everything,” Luke Snider said. “I was so excited to be there, it was awesome.”
Luke Snider said earlier this week that he believes both of his cousins will be able to make the trip and see him play for state, a sort of role reversal after he watched them 10 years ago at the same place. Luke Snider said he’s happy to know his cousins are proud of him for reaching the same stage they reached during their careers.
Dudley is in his 31st season as the Raiders’ coach, and Luke Snider said the coach has established a tradition of how the program operates. He believes his cousins benefited from that tradition 10 years ago, and his team is benefiting from that tradition now.
“It’s pretty important,” Luke Snider said. “Obviously, he’s been a successful coach, he just hasn’t been to state that much. And he’s finally going back and we’re going to try to win it for him.”
Dudley said the only two teams to reach the state title game in school history have done so with somewhat different makeups. The 2003 team had no seniors, so the 2004 squad was able to pick up exactly where it left off from the year before. Thriving on that continuity, that team made its run to Victory Field.
This 2014 team, by contrast, dealt with the loss of some seniors who played key roles on the 2013 squad. Catcher and shortstop were among the positions the 2014 team needed to find new faces to fill. Grant Thompson and Hayden Castor have taken over those positions, respectively. Sophomore Zack Thompson has emerged as the staff ace on the mound this season. Those young players have stepped into a lineup that is otherwise mostly composed of seniors like Luke Snider and his classmates.
“We probably have relied on a few more younger kids this year that have just grown throughout the season,” Dudley said.
Despite the decade separating the two teams, there are some connections between the two squads. Senior infielder Austin White took private lessons from Eric Van Matre when he was younger. Van Matre was a pitcher on the 2004 team who later played at Purdue and Ball State.
White said he started going to school in Wapahani’s district after Van Matre’s playing days, so he didn’t attend the 2004 game. But hearing about Van Matre’s pedigree, he was eager to get a chance to work with him and learn what he could, especially about pitching. It was easy for White to see that Van Matre was still athletic at the time. And White recently described Van Matre as a great pitcher.
Van Matre said he came away from those lessons with the thought that White could play on a state-qualifying team. But he also knew from experience that going to state relies more on the overall team involved, rather than any one individual player.
“The skills are definitely there that he could play (on) that caliber of a team,” Van Matre said. “…It was never out of the question, it’s just a matter of, ‘Could we do it as a group again?'”
Van Matre now resides in the Dayton, Ohio area, but said earlier this week he plans to make the trip to see today’s state title game.
Jeremy Hazelbaker was also a member of the 2004 runner-up team. Hazelbaker went on to play at Ball State, and then in the Boston Red Sox system. He has since been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and is playing with the AAA Albuquerque Isotopes.
When he’s back home in the offseason, Hazelbaker makes a point to work out with Wapahani’s current players, and each year he addresses the team. Judging from the work ethic he observed from the current group, though, Hazelbaker said he didn’t feel the need to say much.
“This group, more than others, meshes so well,” Hazelbaker said. “They’re together as a team so well, always pulling for each other and motivating each other. So hard work isn’t something that I ever had to mention to them. Because they worked as hard as they could. And this group, it’s one that in the last few years when I’ve been in there, it’s one that stands out.”
Hazelbaker’s professional playing schedule means he’s been unable to attend his alma mater’s games during the current run. He settles for following the team via text messages from people who have been attending the games.
Hazelbaker will be playing a game in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night. His hope is to wrap up an Albuquerque Isotopes win against the Iowa Cubs, then come into the clubhouse to find his phone littered with text messages giving accounts of a Wapahani win in Indianapolis.