It was about mid-season when Ruben Garza became aware that his 1981 Class 3A state championship team might need to make some room in the Moses Lake High School trophy case.
There was a palpable buzz, not unlike the fervor felt almost 40 years ago, at Larson Playfield. A near-miss last spring meant high expectations in 2019.
First, a Columbia Basin Big Nine league championship.
Then, a District 6 title over rival Wenatchee.
Next, a pair of wins against Hanford and 2018 champion Richland.
Finally, a masterpiece from Evan McLean in the state semifinals against Skyview and a team win over Olympia in the championship game.
Move over 1981, the 2019 iteration had arrived.
“This team was special and you could tell when you went out there,” Garza said. “They weren’t too cocky, but you could tell the way they walked — it’s a look when you see championship players. The way they walk, the way they talk, the buzz in the field.”
Garza and a few of his teammates from 1981 were at Gesa Stadium when Vance Alvarado struck out the final batter, spiked his mitt and braced for the incoming swarm of bodies. Garza, George Rios, Cesar Rios, Mike Burnson and Roy Adame — members of the 1981 championship team — attended the final game.
“We were standing up the whole time,” Garza said. “We didn’t sit. We knew what we were looking at. We knew what was happening. We knew this was pretty special. It got really loud that last inning.”
Jerry Thaut, who helmed the 1981 team, offered his perspective as a coach.
“It’s an excitement and it’s a relief that you finally achieved what you were working for,” he said.
Thaut’s team lost only once in 1981 — twice if you count an exhibition against Big Bend Community College. It was a romp to the championship game, however, Moses Lake fell behind early, 3-0, to Wilson of Tacoma.
Joe Gonzalez started the game and, despite the early deficit, the Chiefs never panicked.
“I think that’s why we always played so good because we trusted each other as a team,” he said.
The roster construction of the 1981 team was similar to 2019 — kids that just grew up together playing ball. A good chunk of the 2019 upperclassmen played on the Riversharks as youngsters before growing into high school champions. The 1981 squad came from three areas — Chief Moses, Knolls Vista and Peninsula — and usually found themselves on an all-star team. By high school, it was like playing the game with family in the backyard.
“Once we got into that high school level we were basically like brothers,” Gonzalez said.
It was trust that allowed Moses Lake to recover from an atypical start by Gonzalez.
Bill Karwacki caught Gonzalez throughout high school and in the championship game. Karwacki, who played at Eastern Washington University after graduation, said he would toy with batters the first time through the opposition’s lineup.
“OK, the first time through you’re going to get a fastball,” Karwacki would tell the poor soul in the box.
However, Gonzalez had a difficult time finding the strike zone in the first and second innings of the title game. Karwacki — who highlighted how much movement Gonzalez had on his pitches — said his starter was missing just high and the Wilson batters were content to take as many pitches as they could.
Rey Pichardo came on in relief and proceeded to have the game of his life. Pichardo finished the game from the mound and hit the first home run by a high-schooler in the Kingdome. Thaut, all these years later, was able to recount the final sequence.
Wilson had runners on second and third base with one out. Pichardo induced a fielder’s choice, but a run scored and the tying run was 90 feet away. Pichardo struck out the final batter to claim the championship, just like Alvarado did 38 years later.
“I don’t think anyone of us will ever forget it,” Karwacki said. “It was kind of the culmination of our boyhood years.”
In 1981, a group of small-town kids beat a team from Tacoma 5-4 to win a 3A championship.
38 years later, another group of small-town ballplayers beat a team from the state’s capital 5-3 to win a 4A championship.
“They’ll look back on that forever,” Karwacki said. “They’re remember their buddies forever.”