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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

May 21, 2013 at 12:21 PM

Everett CC baseball program built in image of scrappy coach

By Libby Johnson

Libby Johnson graduated from Edmonds Community College, where she studied communications and was a staff writer for the Triton Review.  The Everett resident will attend Central Washington University-Edmonds in the fall.

Levi Lacey grew up with very little, so when he began building an Everett Community College baseball program with few resources, he took the challenge in stride.

He proceeded to single-handedly construct the program from the ground up. In just 11 years Lacey has taken a rag-tag bunch of misfits and molded them in his own image to become one of the state’s better community-college baseball programs.

Lacey’s Trojans include a player with muscular dystrophy, another who got kicked off his high-school baseball team and several who were ignored by other schools because of bad attitudes, academic issues or injuries.

Everett Community College's baseball team will open the Northwest Athletic Association of Community College's tournament Thursday.  Photo by Libby Johnson

Everett Community College’s baseball team will open the Northwest Athletic Association of Community College’s tournament Thursday.
Photo by Libby Johnson

Yet Lacey took a chance on each one. He did it because each reminded him of someone he remembered – himself.

“I go after kids that were like Levi Lacey,” he said. “Players with an edge, but mainly kids that need someone to believe in them.”

The Trojans (34-9 overall, 21-3 division), who won the North Region regular-season title, open the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC) tournament this week in Longview as one of several teams with legitimate title hopes. Everett, seeded second in the North after dropping two games in the North Region tourney, meets Treasure Valley of Ontario, Ore., (37-10) Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

The tournament is just another obstacle for Lacey, a 37-year-old who grew up in a rough neighborhood of North Everett. Coming from a low-income, single-parent home with four siblings, Lacey had to fight hard for everything in life. He says he fell in with the wrong crowd and partied too much. Baseball was the lone constant and his way out.

A good player growing up, Lacey went on to play baseball at Olympic College, where he was named MVP his sophomore year. In May 1995, before pitching a big game, Lacey got a shocking phone call: His 32-year-old brother, Mike Courtney, was killed in a drug deal gone bad.

“I have always wondered why guys couldn’t make better decisions,” Lacey said. “I came from the same walk of life, but I chose to change, to say no.”

Lacey earned a scholarship at College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, then played independent professional ball for three years.

He returned home and learned Everett CC was starting a baseball program. Lacey applied for the manager position and was hired immediately. Thus began yet another uphill battle.

The Trojans shared batting cages wherever they could find them, practiced on the school’s soccer field or gym and worked out in a small auxiliary gym that wasn’t big enough for the full team. They played games on the local high-school fields.

None of that mattered to the coach who had to fight for everything.

“We never let the lack of resources and facilities be an excuse for not getting our work done, “ Lacey said. “We just continued to grind it out.

Recruiting was a huge challenge. A new program with no facilities and no tradition needed a different approach. The charismatic coach sold himself and the challenge of building something new.

“We call him the silver tongue, because he can recruit,” the Everett assistant coach, Cody Atkinson said. “They are all here because of Levi Lacey.”

Fast-forward a decade and his approach seems to be paying off.  The program appears to be getting better each season and even swept perennial powerhouse Bellevue in April. Everett makes its third straight appearance at the NWAACC tournament, which continues through Monday.

This unlikely group of players have been referred to as “misfits and grinders” by Atkinson.

“Grinders because we focus on one day at a time,” Atkinson said. “We are scrappers, just grinding the day away.

Misfit fits this bunch perfectly. Third baseman Dylan Lavelle, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers last year, didn’t pass his physical while at their spring training. Detroit suggested he have surgery on his shoulder. He did so and is batting .316

Levi Lacey, Everett Community College's baseball coach, has built his program from the ground up.  Photo by Libby Johnson

Levi Lacey, Everett Community College’s baseball coach, has built his program from the ground up.
Photo by Libby Johnson

with hopes of being drafted again this year.

First baseman Daniel Orr transferred from Gonzaga and is now one of the Trojans’ top hitter, batting .348.

Starting pitcher Alex Koeplin (7-2, 2.07 earned-run average) was kicked off  Lake Stevens High School’s team for violating team rules. Catcher Robbie Ingram, now a team leader, transferred from New Mexico, where he was considered a cancer because of his bad attitude.

Second baseman Stockton Taylor was ignored after playing for tiny Brewster. He’s hitting .318 and leads the team’s pregame prayers.

Then there is Jo Jo Howie (8-1, 2.74 ERA), one of Everett’s leading pitchers despite having muscular dystrophy, a disease that makes it difficult to maintain muscle mass.

“Growing up with my disability, I have had to learn to make those changes at a young age,” the 6-foot-4 Howie said. “I have never been physically more gifted, so I have always had to find that adjustment, find a way to succeed.”

Not everything has gone smoothly. Earlier this season, pitchers Brad Faulk and Gunnar Swanson got into a fight during the team’s study hall in the Everett CC library. Faulk was dismissed from the team, but later was reinstated. Now the two players are best friends

Players point to the coaches, especially Lacey, as the reason for their success. How can they quit on the team if their head coach refused to quit on them?

“The whole coaching staff helps us get better every day” LaVelle said. “And Levi, he’s a bulldog.”

Just like his team of grinders, misfits and nobodies.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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