A handful of Wishkah High School players and coaches were milling around their home baseball field earlier this month when two Lake Quinault School District vans rolled into the school’s parking lot.
That was a signal that a Twin Valley Wolfpack baseball practice was about to begin.
Only with the Lake Quinault-Wishkah combine is a 40-minute road trip necessary merely to conduct a pratice. It’s one of the few negatives in a unique program that, at least off the field, has gone smoother than expected.
This is the first season in which Wishkah and Quinault will join forces for boys sports, a byproduct of declining male enrollment at both Class 1B schools. Girls teams at the two schools will continue to operate independently.
After student and community input was sought, Twin Valley was selected as the team name and the Wolfpack as the mascot.
Although athletic combines in rural areas of Eastern Washington have been commonplace for years, such an arrangement is rare on the Harbor.
Aberdeen, Hoquiam and (briefly) Montesano formed the Grays Harbor Buccaneers boys swimming team for several years. Raymond, South Bend and Willapa Valley still operate as a combine in wrestling and golf, but the three Willapa Harbor schools are located in much closer proximity than Lake Quinault and Wishkah.
While it had been rumored for at least a year, the Wishkah-Quinault merger took many of the students by surprise.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” admitted Wishkah junior Jace Anderson, a shortstop and pitcher on the baseball team.
Lake Quinault senior outfielder Jorge Ochoa was even more incredulous.
“What?,” he remembered thinking.
Nor was the initial reaction from many of the players particularly positive.
“We just wanted to stay in our school,” said Quinault junior catcher Kobe Kalama.
“I wasn’t quite for it at first because I wanted to play for the Loggers in my senior season,” Wishkah senior pitcher-shortstop Gavin Baltzell noted. “But it’s turned out well so far.”
That’s partly because the players realized they would not have a baseball team had the merger not transpired.
Only four Wishkah students turned out for baseball this spring. While there are 13 Lake Quinault players on the roster, only eight were on hand for the preseason workouts.
“We’re growing as the season goes on,” said Twin Valley head coach Keith Samplawski, who is also Lake Quinault’s principal and athletic director. “We couldn’t have fielded a team at first. We would have had to cancel the season because of that.”
That would have been a particularly bitter pill for Quinault players to swallow. Operating as a separate entity, a senior-dominated Elks team captured the state 1B championship — Lake Quinault’s second state title in five years — last May. As it is, the merger pushed Twin Valley into the 2B classification for this season only.
Players and coaches agree that they’ve been able to put aside the rivalry that had existed between the schools in other sports.
“I think they really are one team,” Samplawski said.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Anderson observed.
Ochoa, however, acknowledged an initial period of wariness in terms of interaction.
“At first, we were sort of in groups,” the Quinault senior said. “Now, we’re playing together as a team. You could say the Wolfpack is together as a pack.”
Samplawski has been able to largely avoid accusations of favoritism, due in part to the roster makeup. His starting lineup is usually composed of all four players from Wishkah and five from Quinault.
“I thought I’d hear about (possible bias), but nothing has come up that I’m aware of,” he recounted.
The biggest difficulty thus far, Samplawski said, is organizing practices.
Due to limited gym space at both schools, the players usually work out separately at their own facilities when it rains. Assistant coach Travis Warren supervises the Wishkah practices in those instances.
“We don’t want to have to drive to get there and have 17 players in one gym,” Samplawski said. “When we do get together, we practice a little longer and take advantage of that time.”
Separate practices will be all but impossible in football and basketball, two sports that rely more heavily on set plays and structured teamwork. Even in baseball, Samplawski said he devotes considerable time communicating his concepts to Warren.
“The kids from Wishkah have done a great job of buying into the system,” Samplawski said.
There have been a few logistical issues as well. Twin Valley uniforms didn’t arrive until mid-April, forcing the team to wear old Lake Quinault jerseys.
“We kind of looked like the Bad News Bears,” Samplawski acknowledged.
Twin Valley’s off-field harmony hasn’t translated thus far into on-field success. With many of last year’s Quinault standouts having graduated, the Wolpack possesses only a 2-7 season record.
Baltzell, for one, believes matters will improve.
“The talent for each team has combined and I think we have a pretty good chance to be successful,” the Wishkah senior said.
If nothing else, this baseball season will provide a template for future Twin Valley teams.
“It has brought the schools together,” Ochoa asserted. “Instead of being rivals, it makes us one community.”