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FALCONS, coach soar to all-league
The second time around, South Whidbey baseball coach Tom Fallon thought the award was a better fit.
Not to diminish his first Cascade Conference coach of the year award, but making the state tournament this season felt like a true milestone of coaching prowess.
“It’s kind of crazy to get that two times in a row,” he said. “It felt more deserved this year. For me, that’s a huge honor coming from the other coaches in the league.”
Fallon was far from being alone on the coach-voted all-Cascade Conference teams this season. Five of his players garnered enough notice and votes from the league’s other coaches that they were named to the all-league teams. Colton Sterba, Nick Bennett, Ricky Muzzy and Brent Piehler made the first team, and Charlie Patterson the second team.
“The way the whole program is going, that’s a reflection on Falcon baseball,” Fallon said.
The two all-conference seniors, Bennett and Sterba, had marquee seasons in their last hurrahs as Falcons.
Sterba was one of three pitchers named to the all-league first team. On the year, he recorded six victories against zero losses, pitched 47 innings while striking out 48 batters and walking 18. It amounted to a 1.18 earned-run average, which Fallon believes is a school record.
“I never looked at my stats,” said Sterba, who was voted to the second team last season. “But hearing Tom say that at the [team] banquet, it was a neat topper to the season.”
All of the personal accolades and statistics could go to someone else, Sterba said, if he could have played in the state title game. But his arm failed him in the playoffs after brilliant pitching in the regular season, including two combined no-hitters. Instead he took to the field where he would only be called on to make a few throws compared to dozens from the mound.
“Pitching, there’s so much strain,” Sterba said. “You’re making a hundred throws a game, compared to shortstop with maybe five a game and it’s an adrenaline thing. Pitching, you have to control every throw.”
Late in the season during a brutal stretch against two of the league’s top teams, Sterba had total command from the mound. Facing Archbishop Murphy, the Falcons’ ace pitcher was “in the zone,” as Fallon recalled. He went on to allow only a few hits and got a 1-0 win over the Wildcats, one of the first in Falcon history.
“We came in and didn’t know how we were gonna do. We hadn’t beaten them in a long time,” Sterba said.
Bennett, the team’s left fielder, made his mark with power both at the plate and on the grass. He recorded a .391 batting average and relied on his speed in the outfield to cover lots of ground.
“He was a solid defensive outfielder for us,” Fallon said. “There weren’t a lot of balls that could drop that either one [Bennett or center fielder Jake Sladky] couldn’t get to.”
Bennett had to rely on that speed because he was not fond of making diving catches after a knee injury kept him sidelined much of his junior season. As the team found its footing under Fallon, who said he recalled the outfielder’s ability to throw runners out at home plate, Bennett discovered he had to trust the infielders as the cutoff throw instead of trying to gun runners out.
“He would always yell at me for not hitting the cut man, and I didn’t want to get yelled at anymore,” Bennett laughed. “Not showing off my arm and throwing it all the way home, it works sometimes.”
There was still a time for the spotlight to shine on Bennett, however. The three-sport letterman — he also played football and basketball — remembered his fondest moment as knocking a home run against a Lakewood pitcher whom he described as being “a talker.”
“He threw me a low, inside pitch and I got a home run, and it was the best feeling ever,” Bennett said.
One of the marked shifts for the Falcons, the two seniors said, was that the players bought into Fallon’s “team first” mentality. Instead of focusing on individual performance, the players needed to do what would help South Whidbey; a common sports adage is playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back, even though South Whidbey does not put players’ names on the uniforms.
“It’s one goal for everyone instead of personal goals for everyone,” Sterba said. “We’ve performed better.”
South Whidbey’s younger all-league players, Muzzy, Piehler and Patterson, were no slouches. Muzzy tallied a .434 batting average as the Falcons’ leadoff hitter, despite starting the season as the third batter.
“He wasn’t real comfortable doing it, but he’s a team guy and did what we asked,” Fallon said. “He’s a guy who makes things happen.”
Muzzy led the Falcons in batting average, runs (20), and hits (36).
Piehler was voted as the league’s top catcher. Fallon said it was a near-unanimous decision during the coaches’ meeting. The Falcons’ cleanup hitter had a .356 average, led in RBI (17) and walks (12). A big reason for getting other coaches to remember him was the junior’s ability to throw out base runners trying to steal.
“His arm strength is incredible,” Fallon said. “When we did first-team selections, every coach was like, ‘Yeah, your guy is the guy.’ Teams didn’t run on him.”
At the start of the season, sophomore Charlie Patterson was penciled as a reliever on the mound and a role player. He developed into South Whidbey’s second pitcher in the rotation and became the playoff hurler when Sterba was injured.
“Here’s a sophomore stepping in, and he ended up leading the team in innings pitched,” Fallon said.
This season, Patterson threw 50 innings and recorded 58 strikeouts against 24 walks and a 1.4 ERA.
“Crafty lefties,” Fallon said. “He doesn’t throw it 85 mph down your throat, but he’ll throw it inside, outside, and he has a pretty good change-up.”