WALLA WALLA - In 1989, Kim Cox's seventh season as the head baseball coach at DeSales, the Irish celebrated their first state baseball championship after a 7-2 victory over Toutle Lake in the Kingdome in Seattle.
DeSales made it back to the Washington Class B state championship game again in 1991 and lost to those same Ducks, 12-6.
Then, in the spring of 1992, the Irish began a reign of baseball dominance the likes of which this state has never seen. The Irish defeated Naselle 13-4 to begin a run of seven consecutive state titles.
The string was interrupted in 1999 when the Irish lost to La Conner in the state semifinals. The following year, however, DeSales got back on track with a 4-3 title-game victory over Mossyrock that launched a second run of seven championships in as many years.
After failing to reach the finals in 2007, DeSales walloped Adna 29-7 in the 2008 state finals for its 16th Class B championship in a span of 20 years. The Irish then suffered a distressing 11-10 extra inning defeat at the hands of Northwest Christian in the 2009 finale and they haven't made it back to the championship game since.
That makes two consecutive years in which the Irish haven't played in the final game, something that hadn't happened since 1985. DeSales lost to Rosalia 12-7 in the 1986 championship game and to Morton 8-1 in the 1987 finals before finally going all the way in 1989.
"There are a couple of things at play," Cox said of this recent lull.
"I think the competition has gotten better, there are more kids at our level playing summer ball now than before, and overall the coaching has been better. And I also think that we are not as good athletically as we have been in the past."
That said, it's not as though the Irish are no longer a factor. Last year's DeSales team won league, district and regional championships before losing to eventual state champion Seattle Lutheran 12-7 in the Class 2B state semifinals. A 5-4 loss to La Conner the following day left the Irish in fourth place with a 19-6 final record.
And as Cox begins his 30th season in charge of the Irish program, he is his usual pragmatic self in assessing his team's prospects for the 2012 campaign.
"I think we will be pretty good on defense," Cox said. "And I think we will swing OK. It's just going to come down to what we get on the bump.
"I think we have some capable guys, but we're not loaded," he said of this year's pitching staff. "We haven't been for a long time. And there's no question that that has been the difference in the last few years.
"I can remember a time when we had Joe Levens and Brian Lindgren and Kris Wolfram and J.C. Biagi all on the same staff. We could have played a 162-game schedule that year and we might not have lost a game. We don't have that caliber of pitcher or the depth that we used to have."
Victor Mata, the top pitcher on last year's staff, is one of four key losses to graduation. The others are center fielder Tommy Gregg, third baseman Kyle Lindgren and corner outfielder Kincaid Schmitz.
"Vic was our No. 1 pitcher, and he also played first base, third base and some shortstop," Cox said of Mata. "He did a good job last year, especially throwing, and he also provided some good leadership.
"Tommy Gregg was a three-year starter for us and did a great job in center field. Kyle Lindgren started for us the last couple of years at third, and Kincaid Schmitz was an occasional starter in the outfield."
Junior Logan Hoeft begins the season as the Irish's No. 1 pitcher.
"Statistically he was a pretty good guy," Cox said of Hoeft, who will also see playing time at shortstop. "He doesn't strike out a bunch of guys, but he locates well and keeps the game moving nicely. Last year he pitched 57 innings and had a 2.82 earned run average."
Others who figure into Cox's pitching plans are senior Spencer Cordeiro, junior Riley Roach, sophomores Matt Jubb and Darryl Galloway and freshmen Cam Richman and Tyler Jacobsen.
Cordeiro, who was ineligible as a junior after transferring from Wa-Hi, will also see time at third base. Roach saw some varsity action in the outfield as well as pitcher during his sophomore year, as did Galloway. Jubb didn't see any varsity action as a freshman. Richman and Jacobsen, of course, are in their first season of varsity ball.
"Spencer has done a really good job at the beginning of the season here," Cox said of Cordeiro. "He's in a lot better shape and spent some time working on his game over the winter. I'm pretty pleased with everything I've seen out of him so far.
"Roach is pretty capable both as a pitcher and as an outfielder," Cox added. "He's likely to be our starting center fielder and probably our No. 4 pitcher.
"Galloway is a good athlete who can play virtually any position on the field, and he swings a pretty good bat. He saw a lot of playing time as a freshman and he should be one of our best outfielders and one of our more productive players."
Cox called Jubb "probably the most improved player in our program right now" and he is especially pleased with the experience Richman and Jacobsen gained playing for the Walla Walla Black Sox, one of Walla Walla's summer baseball teams.
"He can pitch, he can play the left side of the infield and I think he's capable of getting some starts at catcher," Cox said of Richman. "He's capable of slotting as one of our top two pitchers, and he has looked every bit as good as some of our older guys.
Jacobsen is also getting reps at shortstop, Cox said, although his strong suit at this point is his "command and good breaking stuff" on the mound.
"Those two guys played more than 80 games over the last two summers with the Black Sox," Cox said. "They have the experience that puts them way ahead of the normal freshman here, and that's why they are pushing for varsity playing time."
Senior Brandon Arellano is a returning starter in left field, junior Joe Duehn is back behind the plate for a second straight season and junior Tim Caudill, one of DeSales' leading hitters as a sophomore, will once again play first base. Three other juniors - Travis Haen, Kyler Pommerening and Cody Josifek - are battling for starting positions.
"Arellano swings the bat pretty good and is pretty steady in the outfield," Cox said. "Duehn is a good receiver who is quick, athletic and blocks balls well. And Caudill hit .335 for us with eight doubles and 25 RBIs, something we're hoping for more of this year.
"Hahn is a middle infielder who is a really good little player, a good hitter, a good competitor and a very intelligent player. Pommerening saw some varsity action last year and could start for us this year at third base or possibly the outfield. Josifek played sparingly last year, but he's doing a good job this spring and has earned his chance."
Another junior, Paul Elmenhurst, is out for baseball for the first time and has caught Cox's eye.
"We are looking at him as a pitcher and an outfielder," the coach said. "He's a lefty and a pretty good athlete who we think can be pretty good down the road if he is willing to be patient and learn."
Another sophomore who figures heavily in Cox's plans this season is Adam Eskil, who was a part time starter last year and can play either the infield or the outfield.
"He swings the bat good, and he has finally put on some size," Cox said of Eskil. "Last year he was really small and he had that going against him. But he is a pretty productive guy that we will want in our lineup."
Adam Skaarup is a first-year sophomore and another intriguing player in Cox's estimation.
"He has really surprised us, some of the stuff he has done," Cox said. "He doesn't look like a guy who has never played. We don't know how good he can be, but he might be really good."
The list of freshmen on this year's roster also includes Jackson Kent, Josh Larson, Logan Cordeiro, Connor Richard, Eathan Haen, Isaac Mata, Nathan Herman, Kris Arellano and Montana Arceo. It's a deep and gifted class which holds a lot of promise for the future.
"I like that group," Cox said. "I like it a lot."
Just what the future holds for this season, however, could depend on Thursday's district eligibility hearing that will determine if J.J. Robinson can play for the Irish this spring. Robinson is a 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior transfer from Colfax who enrolled at DeSales at the semester break.
"He's a good player," Cox said of Robinson. "He played on our Black Sox teams as a 13- and 14-year-old. He can pitch, he can catch and he can play the left side of the infield. And he's a good hitter.
"I think our defense and our hitting are our strengths, and right now our defense is quite a bit ahead of the offense. One positive hearing could change all of that."