Expectations were high for the Auburn Riverside baseball team coming into the season.
The Ravens continue to emerge this week, winning their first district tournament game, 6-1, against Stadium on Tuesday, and setting up a shot at qualifying for the 4A state field with a loser-out playoff against Union on Wednesday (with results unavailable at press time).
“We’re excited about going to the next round because that was the goal at the beginning of the year,” coach Chris Garrison said. “Our kids are tough kids and keep fighting.”
For the Ravens, that determination begins on the mound with Michael Rucker, a 6-foot, 175-pound junior right-hander.
“Michael Rucker has been our key to success in a lot of ways,” Garrison said. “Not only has he started games, but he’s finished games. He’s led by example by being tough. He always wants the ball in the last innings, so he can go after and get them.”
During the regular season, Rucker powered through the South Puget Sound League North 4A, earning a 6-1 league record, with 63 strikeouts and a minuscule 1.17 ERA.
“He’s been dominant. There are not a lot of teams that can beat him,” Garrison said. “He’s got three good pitches, and he’s progressed every year.”
Relying on a fastball, slider and change-up, Rucker has been an innings eater, devouring 48 regular-season frames this year. In the postseason, he already has a complete game – an 11-strikeout, complete-game masterpiece against Stadium.
“It’s a God-given gift with my arm and how it’s been pretty much like rubber,” Rucker said. “It’s been nice being able to live up to those expectations, getting into the playoffs.”
Rucker, who first took to the mound as a Little Leaguer, credits much of the success to his work ethic, as well as the advice of his coaches – both at the select level, where he plays for the Kent Bulldogs 18U squad – and in high school.
“I started having tremendous success with coach Joe Strong (from the Evergreen Sports Center), then with all my coaches with Riverside and Scott Kelly and Justin Gabriel,” Rucker said. “From) all of those guys, I’ve just taken little things and just kind of turned them into my own. It’s a lot of preparation, focusing on my craft and trying to develop it and refine it so it comes out on the baseball field.”
Rucker and the Ravens are finding their groove.
The Ravens went 7-13 last season, including a seventh-place finish in the South Puget Sound League North 4A race with a 5-11 record.
Garrison’s team struggled out of the gate this season with high expectations. Ineligible players hampered the early season roster.
After a 2-6 start, the Ravens’ restored lineup began to hit its stride. The up-and-down season left AR fourth in the rugged SPSL North race. The Ravens are 13-8 overall.
“They worked through it. They didn’t get down too low,” Garrison said of the difficult season. “They did a good job of focusing.”
Senior leadership took hold. Co-captains John Hakala and Kell Garrison, as well as fellow seniors Michael Sherwin, Cameron Grad and Taylor Maples showed the way.
“We certainly had a positive outlook going into the season,” Rucker said. “There were just a lot of good things going into the season. We just started making adjustments with the bats, and that’s where it all starts from. We played some rough teams, starting out nonleague with Emerald Ridge and some of those teams in the SPSL South. It just kind of clicked for us against Spanaway Lake and then with beating Mount Rainier. We just started doing our thing.”
In addition to the seniors, the Ravens also got contributions from junior starters Kai Uwaine and Nick Minteer, and sophomore shortstop Austin Marty.
“Austin Marty has been on base 50 percent of the time the past few weeks,” Garrison said. “He sets the table for us to get some runs in and has been getting some RBIs for us also, and that’s good.”
The Ravens are equipped and eager to make it to state. “They know they can play,” Garrison said.
“They had a lot tough games last year and this year and got that experience. So I think that is coming out a little bit now.”