I wanted to wait until the Puyallup Vikings finished their season before writing about how the team has been successful in developing Division-I level talent over the last 10 years -– but this is also about why this baseball program will be formidable for years to come.
Let’s start with the 2014 team. Puyallup just finished a perfect (20-0) regular season sitting atop the rankings as Class-4A’s No. 1-ranked team in Washington State as well as winning the tough South Puget Sound League (South) championship. Victories included wins over Class-4A state runner-up South Kitsap (Narrows 4A) and Class-3A state champion Auburn Mountainview. And on top of all this, they did it while the national spotlight burned its gaze on them –- Puyallup finished their season as the No. 24 team in the country after starting out at No. 28, via Perfect Game.
So, it’s been a good year.
But why has Puyallup been so successful this past decade – a decade where over 20 players moved on to D-I schools.
The simple answer: they’re full of dirt-dogs.
That’s a new term for the baseball lexicon as it represents the full nature of what Puyallup head coach Marc Wiese seeks in his talent.
“All I ever want from my players is for them to continue their playing careers as far as their willing to take it,” Wiese said. “To do that, they have to be dirt-dogs out there –- those are the players who are willing to not only work hard but put in the extra effort to succeed. They’re loyal to each other; they want to get their jerseys dirty and will put the team first … they’re the guys you want to go to war with. And the most important thing is that no one is more important than the team.”
Dirt-Dogs of the Northwest
Not many teams have Puyallup’s mentality on the ball field – after watching enough baseball, you can see there’s just something fundamentally different about the Vikings. They live by one simple rule –- you either put up or shut up.
“If you’re not busting your butt during practice or during off-season doing your work outs … I tell you what, I’ll go find someone who will put in that work,” Wiese said. “I have 8-10 other guys who are hungry and itching for a chance to play.”
It may seem harsh but at the high school level the players feed off their coaches attitudes. After watching how Puyallup operates at practice it’s easy to see the players have bought in –- no one is ever caught doing nothing and everyone is trying to improve in some way.
For example, long-toss: the simple practice to stretch out the arms for other teams but for the Vikings becomes a constant quest for improvement. It’s the attitude Wiese likes to call the ‘winning every inning, every pitch’ approach.
During their routine workouts the veteran players often speak up to the younger ones around them or turn a one-on-one throwing session into one-on-two all just to teach-up the team.
If I can make you as good as me then we can really do something. Wiese says “it’s a team mindset that holds everyone accountable. I didn’t elect a captain this year because I want a team full of captains … no entitlement, and take responsibility for this team.”
It’s true that Puyallup doesn’t value age or any forms of entitlement on the team. During my visit at their practice, every player was doing something, working on some drill. As the younger players guys kept at their long toss, it was the veterans and stars doing the grunt work, as Brendan Illies, Quinn Rawson, Levi Jordan and Adam Stump set up the heavy hitting cage and pitching net, as it was time for group 1 to take some swings in batting practice.
“That’s how it goes around here,” Wiese added. “If I want to point at a guy and use as an example of what it takes here, I don’t have to point any further than Adam Stump. Nobody works harder than that young man. He embodies our program here … he’s what I mean when I say ‘dirt dog’ as he’ll do whatever it takes to improve, be it extra ground balls or extra work in the cages.”
Stump finished the regular season batting .489 after hitting .265 a year ago, further serving as the perfect example of Wiese’s approach.
And as the players went through their sessions — Illies working on line drives up the middle, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Rawson working on going the other way with his left-handed power stroke, or Jordan putting the ball on the ground so he can use his speed to get on base, Wiese says it’s about working on the little things each player needs to do in order for that individual to succeed.
“With a guy like Quinn, he’s got incredible untapped power,” Weise noted. “It’s about teaching him to approach the situation. He can pull the ball and drive it out just like a home run he absolutely clobbered and hit halfway up the light pole (past the right-center fence),” Wiese said pointing at the light post that stood 380-feet away. [Halfway up the post would be an estimated 400-foot shot] “If Quinn wants to really take it somewhere, he’ll have to learn to drive it the other way. And he’s done that for us, it’s just coaching all these guys to play within themselves.”
The attitude plays up in games like it did in their 9-8 win against Auburn Mountainview at Safeco Field last month. On that day, the Vikings fell behind for the first and only time on the season after the Lions jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the top half of the first inning. Behind 7-3 heading into the the last few innings, the Vikings staged a comeback with Brendan Illies successfully tying the game with a suicide squeeze. Quinn Rawson then smacked a go-ahead sac-fly to give Puyallup a lead they never relinquished.
Basically, Puyallup asked their two best hitters to put stats aside and lay themselves out for the team.
“We feed off each other and never get rattled out there,” senior shortstop Jordan said. “Our offense comes from the bench and we’ll do what it takes to win. We believe we can beat anyone.”
The Unmatched Depth
Puyallup fields a 22-player roster, about six more than the average prep team. This means roughly half the players will get zero-to-little playing time the entire season. The reason for such depth? Well, why not?
“If they’re too good to play on JV then there’s no point putting them out there regardless of playing time, Wiese explained. “You’re not challenging them that way, so you call them up with the varsity team and give them an equivalent of a red-shirt year.”
Not Willing to Risk Health over Success
One thing is true in all prep sports: When you have a top talented player, you ride that horse until it can’t go any further.
That’s one of the scariest aspects for many MLB scouts because prep coaches tend to overdo it with their players, especially with the ever-precious pitcher. A young 15-18 year old arm should never be abused, and that’s not how Wiese operates. Take for example junior southpaw Luke Heimlich, an Oregon State commit that has the durability to throw twice per week on a pitch count of 80-85 pitches and a max of 95. Impressive for a young left-hander who can hit the upper-80’s with his fastball late in a start.
How is he used at Puyallup? “I’ll take him out at 60-70 pitches tops, “Wiese said. “There’s other guys behind him who can finish what he starts.”
Never overuse the player, especially in a blowout, something the Vikings tend to foster quite a bit.
“You see, the hardest thing as a coach, for me, is getting all the guys on the bench ready,” Wiese said. “Injuries can happen at any moment during a season, so it’s my job to make sure those guys who don’t get many chances are ready to start when needed.” Doing so successfully allows the Vikings to not only protect young players from the abuse we see consistently around the country, but they use it as a player development tool.
Reasons for Talent Growth in Washington
Along with population growth, there are more fields, a higher quality of those available fields and perhaps most of all more places for players to train during the winter months. Among those include Northwest Diamond Sports, Big League Edge, Varsity Baseball, and Regional Athletic Complex. Perhaps most critical to the Vikings is Driveline Baseball right there in Puyallup. Driveline, owned and operated by Kyle Boddy, is known for effectively and properly training pitchers for added velocity and long-term health. Boddy’s clients include Cleveland Indians right-hander Trevor Bauer, former first-round pick Casey Weathers, and, of course, the Vikings themselves.
As for the players seeing the opportunity to develop during the offseason by utilizing these resources?
“I don’t get on them during the off-season about what they need to do … they know what they’re responsibilities are,” Wiese said. “I leave their off-season work for them to take care of because once they reach the next level or when they go pro, they will have to be responsible for themselves. If I can teach them that here then I’ve done a part of my job.”
Perhaps the top prospect on the Vikings roster is catcher and right-handed pitcher Brendan Illies. He’s committed to North Carolina, but he’s got one more year of high school ball left. He’s likely to lead the state’s prep class a year from now, and could be a top-100 selection in the 2015 MLB Draft.
All That’s Left
As far as the 2014 season goes, it’s up to Puyallup to utilize its talent and make a deep run at state this year. That’s the unknown in Puyallup’s future.
What is known is as long as Marc Wiese remains at the helm, the Vikings will continue to churn out top level talent year-in and year-out. They’ll do it by developing leadership, work ethic and without risking the futures of the players.