Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – There was an undeniable feeling of internal excitement within the West Branch baseball program as practices began last season.
A new coaching staff taking over a team headed by a talented group of upperclassmen provided a level of optimism that had been largely absent during six consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
The only thing missing was the results.
Those results came last summer in the form of one of the best underdog stories in the state as West Branch posted its first 20-win season and state tournament appearance since 2012.
Underdogs no longer, the Bears open the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season a prime contender in Class 2A and chasing an extended stay at the state tournament.
“Last year we went into the season with the idea that we were an underdog and people were going to overlook us and this year we kind of have a target on our backs,” senior Peter Espensen said. “We have a name to uphold this year and we hope to do that.”
Those within the West Branch program could see progress coming prior to last season.
Instead of steady progress the Bears saw an immediate breakthrough last summer under first-year Andy Lapel.
A year after winning 12 games and placing fifth in the River Valley Conference South Division standings in 2018 the Bears won 20 games, finished second behind Wilton in the RVC South and reached the state tournament for just the third time in program history a year ago.
“I think it really laid a good foundation for us to build off of with that success from last year,” West Branch senior Trey Eagle said. “The success of that season should carry over to this year, we have a good group coming back and I think it helps build confidence coming into this year.”
It's easy to see why last season success came as a surprise to so many.
From 2013 to 2018 West Branch averaged less than ten wins a season and never won more than 12 games in a single year in that span.
The low mark came in the form of back-to-back single digit win totals in 2016 and 2017.
Current seniors like Eagle, Espensen and Matt Paulsen saw the Bears win a combined 10 games their first two seasons in the program.
That senior class has been at the heart of one of the top turnarounds in the state over the past two seasons.
West Branch went 12-15 in 2018 before bursting onto the scene as a contender last year.
“West Branch is knowing for being very successful at everything and baseball was kind of at the bottom of the totem pole for a while,” Eagle said. “We kind of progressed each year and knowing that we were a big part of that change and that we laid down a foundation for the culture that will hopefully be a success baseball program for the years to come.”
Paulsen, Espensen and Eagle headline a senior class set to show the state last season was no fluke.
That trio is among six full-time starters returning from last year’s team that fell to eventual state runner-up North Linn in the Class 2A state quarterfinals.
“We want to make it back to the state tournament, that’s our first goal,” Paulsen said. “We want to make it back and make a run. We don’t want to be one and done like we were last year and we think with our team this year we can definitely compete at the state tournament so we want to get back.”
The personnel appears to be in place for a special season at West Branch.
Seniors Matt Whaley and Brad Hunger join Espensen, Paulsen and Eagle as returning starters along with junior second baseman Gavin Hierseman.
Led by Paulsen (.426), Eagle (.395) and Espensen (.312) three of the top five hitters return from a West Branch team that hit .322 as a team last season.
“I think everybody hopes to win state but I want to just keep improving and give the guys next year a solid foundation as well,” Espensen said. “We need to get everyone hitter, get higher batting averages throughout the lineup and I think that will really help.”
Hierseman and Whaley give the Bears a strong defensive middle infield and each hit .254 a year ago while Hunger hit .324 as a part-time starter.
“We feel really good with the guys that we have returning, we have so many guys coming back,” Lapel said. “We have some holes to fill but I know that our guys will be ready to go game one.”
With the pandemic cutting the season down to six weeks, with games beginning on June 15 and ending with the final day of the state tournament on August 1, pitching will be at a premium for all teams.
That is where West Branch expects to stand out amongst its peers in Class 2A.
Paulsen, Espensen and Eagle return after combining to throw 107 innings a year ago and give the Bears a rotation among the most balanced in Class 2A.
“To have three guys that I know I can put out there and pretty much shut down any team that we are going to play definitely gives us a lot of confidence as a coaching staff,” Lapel said. “I don’t think anybody has a three-headed monster like we do with three seniors that threw over 100 innings last year.”
Paulsen went 4-2 with a 3.52 ERA in a team-high 47 2/3 innings last season while Eagle (5-0, 2.69 ERA) threw 41 2/3 and Espensen (2-1, 2.38 ERA) worked 17 2/3.
Those three along with rising varsity arms like juniors Bryce Pickett and Kaleb Sexton and sophomore Lucas Pierce give the Bears a solid rotation from top to bottom.
“With the shortened season we are squeezing a lot of games in so right now our goal is to get quality innings out of as many guys as we can and I think there have been a lot of guys that have stepped up and proved they can do that,” Paulsen said. “We are pretty confident going in that we’ve got guys that shut teams down.”
One season of success and one game at the state tournament can be forgotten over time.
The goal for the current crop of seniors is to continue the legacy that West Branch is building as a baseball school.
“As most people know I would call our school more of a football school and that’s because of the great culture we have I football,” Paulsen said. “I think with our senior class and the seniors last year we are building a culture in baseball and we are becoming somewhat of a baseball school.”