Past, present, future key to Hanford Flames

August 7, 2013 

Four months ago, Colin Serkowski was down in San Antonio, Texas, enjoying his first fully healthy season of baseball in two years.

Finn McMichael was over in McMinnville, Ore., recovering from a hamstring injury while riding the pine at Linfield College in the midst of a national championship season. Ryan Neal, Trevor Jones and Jake Browne were in Walla Walla helping the Warriors qualify for the NWAACC East Regionals.

At the same time, Isaac Benard was putting up MVP-type numbers for Hanford High on his way to the triple crown in the Mid-Columbia Conference. And Jacob Anderson was a bit of a wide-eyed sophomore just trying to find his niche on the varsity team.

Last week, that mix of the past, present and future of Hanford baseball came together — along with eight other key pieces — to win the senior American Legion state championship in Spokane. And today, they continue their postseason march at the Pacific Northwest Regionals in Eugene, Ore.

The Hanford Flames (39-19) take on the Canyon Crushers of Salem — the Oregon state champs — at 5 p.m. at Swede Johnson Stadium.

A big part of this summer’s success has been the return of the five college guys: Browne at catcher, Serkowski at pitcher and first base, Neal in the infield and Jones and McMichael in the outfield.

“It’s always been a dream of ours,” Serkowski said of winning the state title. “And we’ve got so much pride in our program, coming from a single high school.

“It was just an unbelievable feeling. I thought coming into school ball last year, honestly we choked in the playoffs. And halfway through this year, we didn’t know if the team would make the playoffs even. Then it changed. It clicked.”

Clicked, many of the players said, because it took until nearly July for the big dogs of Hanford past and the big dogs of Hanford present to mesh into one pack.

Trust, they said, was a key ingredient.

“We hit the ball better, we played better defense,” McMichael said. “The pitching was always there. And we got better at trusting everyone. People trusted themselves to make plays, and everyone started playing better.”

Boy howdy. After starting the summer 3-9 and then 10-17, the Flames got hotter than asphalt in the July sun, going 29-2 over the last month.

It’s been real fun coming to the ballpark, said Anderson, the team’s No. 2 pitcher on a starting staff that includes Ryan Colson and Aaron Enderlin and a bullpen with a bona fide closer in Nate Mitchell.

“Every time I get to go out there, I’m excited,” Anderson said. “It’s good competition, and you get used to playing on that level. And when you hit the ball like our guys do, I just have to go out there and throw ground balls, throw strikes.”

For Anderson, the last several months have been somewhat surreal. He started the spring on the JV squad before getting called up a few games in and earning the No. 2 starters spot midway through.

He still remembers being a fan of many of his current teammates.

“They were really good their senior year, and as freshmen we would go to the varsity games, and we were in awe of them,” he said. “They were so much bigger and better than us.”

That senior year ended bitterly for the college guys. After winning the league title, Hanford went 0-2 in the playoffs and didn’t even get to state. And it was Kamiakin that went on to win the state title.

All that made winning the American Legion state title that much sweeter.

“It was a good feeling,” Browne said. “This was finally the summer we got to get together to do the thing that we didn’t get done when we were seniors in high school.”

Added Serkowski, who played much of his senior season with a torn ACL: “A state championship is a feat that never can be taken away from you the rest of your life. Then again, it’s yesterday’s news. We have to move on to focus on the next game.”

Unfortunately for the Flames, that next game and all those that come after will be played without Benard. The standout senior-to-be is playing at the prestigious Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., along with Kennewick’s J.J. Hancock.

Nat Roe, who co-coaches the Flames with Tom DeWitz, said American Legion rules won’t allow a player to rejoin the team once the postseason has started. That rule also cost the Flames pitcher and No. 9 hitter Jamieson Hopp to a family trip to Europe.

Colson will take over for Benard in the outfield, where he started for Hanford during the high school season. And the Flames may have enough hitters to make up for the loss of a big bat in the heart of their order.

And, Serkowski said, they still have the guy he considers to be the most important player on the team.

“I wouldn’t be saying this if it wasn’t vital to our success — Jake Browne hands down is the best catcher in the state of Washington,” Serkowski said. “I wouldn’t have half of my success if it wasn’t for him. ... He is possibly the most vital component of leadership on this team.”

For Browne’s part, he said the team isn’t shying away from success and thoughts of moving on to the World Series next week in Shelby, N.C.

“Our confidence is just high,” he said. “We know we’re in a position to do it.”

At the same time, he added, “I try not to think too far ahead. If we play well, we have a good chance to do it.”

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