HAWARDEN, Iowa | The change started for West Sioux when it began to see the No. 1 pitcher.
After several down years the Class 1A 10th-ranked Falcons baseball team was always that opponent that other teams keep their top pitcher off the mound for and save him for a different game.
How the times have changed.
Sitting at 14-2 on the season the Falcons are getting their fair share of No. 1 starters these days and finding ways to be successful thanks to hard lessons learned as sometimes overmatched younger players just a few seasons ago.
“Teams would come in and throw, and if we saw a No. 2 it was a big thing,” West Sioux Coach Brian Engleman said. “Quickly last year we started seeing everyone’s No. 1, and I think we were thinking 'at least now they aren’t looking at us as an easy win.’”
The growth has come through experience as many of the sophomores and juniors took their lumps with teams that went 4-19, 6-16 and 12-13 the past three seasons.
“Getting off to the start was surprising,” said Engleman, who coached the Falcons from 2005-07 before returning in 2012. “We knew we were going to be better, of course, we have been playing the same kids for the last two or three years.”
This team has put itself in position to contend in the always ultra-tough War Eagle Conference.
“You can see it in the confidence because you go even a year back and you are facing a team like (Remsen) St. Mary’s or (Le Mars) Gehlen and you are down a run or two runs, you could see it in their face. It was over,” Engelman said. “It was just the way it is, West Sioux loses to those guys.
“This year I don’t see that. I haven’t seen it all year. … It goes from we are not good enough to we can win all of these games. It is a mental game and you can’t do anything if you don’t believe you can.”
Engleman believes the transformation for the Falcons began at the end of last season when they were able to beat West Lyon’s best pitcher in the district opener, and followed that up with a close loss to Remsen St. Mary’s where West Sioux hurt itself with errors.
“One of the big advantages of playing the War Eagle is having to play teams like that because you know those are the teams you will have to beat if you want to go to Des Moines,” West Sioux junior Porter Hummel said. “Last year I think we matured and realized we could be a good team in the War Eagle and winning that first district game was a turning point.”
The Falcons' success has been driven by a pitching staff that has four shutouts this season.
Sophomore Tucker Vander Feen leads the way with a 6-1 record in 37 1/3 innings pitched and has an impressive 1.50 ERA. Hummel leads the staff as a hard-throwing lefty with a 3-0 mark and 51 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings of work.
“Porter Hummel, I wouldn’t trade him for any pitcher in the state,” Engleman said. “I know there are kids that throw harder, but he had a great season last year … and he has worked hard, came in in shape and he is tough.
“He hasn’t thrown that much this season because we are saving him for the big games and trying to keep him away a little bit from some of the teams we have to face down the road.”
For his part, Hummel doesn’t care if he is pitching or in the field as long as the wins continue to come.
“I take advantage of the starts I do get and I want to see the other guys succeed too,” he said.
Vander Feen is hoping to follow in his brother’s footsteps as Chase was part of the 2007 state tournament team. This year’s squad already one-upped that one by breaking into the rankings.
“We worked really hard in the winter and I feel that has helped us a lot, and I think our team chemistry is key because we are all really good friends,” Vander Feen said. “It is a lot more fun this year. I feel like people want to be there, play and work hard. That has made us better.
“(Chase’s) team was good and it just motivates me to make sure my team is better than his team. It is a little competition between me and my brother … we have talked about it and he gives me some grief.”
Even when West Sioux went to state in 2007 it shared the War Eagle Conference title with Spalding making this chase even more exciting. The Falcons lost to Remsen in the season opener (3-0) and Hinton (9-6) but has taken two from Gehlen (6-3, 3-2) so far this season.
Although the pitching has been strong for the 18-player squad, hitting is still a work in progress. Hummel leads the team with an impressive .467 average while Kezden Blankenship is at .415 and Trevor Ericson is hitting .326 as the lone batters above .300. However, Hummel and Blankenship do add speed on the bases with each having 10 or more steals.
Vander Feen credits the team’s lone senior in Ericson for providing leadership for his younger teammates and keeping them focused on their goals.
The Falcons have had their bumps along the way and now they get the chance to enjoy the ride.
“We have talked as a team and know we have been through some tough times … but we have turned the tables and want to end with success,” Hummel said.