In the second installment of the “Coaches Corner” series, the Pioneer Review caught up with Eric Lay who has coached baseball for 21 seasons, starting in Maxwell, and for the last eight years and counting in Colusa.
A titan in the world of high school baseball in the Northern Section, any discussion about the top coaches would be remiss without Lay’s name being added to the mix.
Between 2001 and 2011 in Maxwell, Lay set a state mark for the best coaching record with a nearly unheard of .864 winning percentage which translated into 254 wins and just 40 losses along with six section titles.
After stepping down in Maxwell, Lay was hired in Colusa as a teacher and took over the baseball program in 2012-13, where he led the RedHawks to back-to-back section titles.
So after 21 years and 535 games, 434 of them wins, Lay found it exceedingly difficult to narrow it down to two teams, but after considerable thought, selected as the most memorable to this point, his 2011 Maxwell team that went a perfect 30-0 on the season, and his 2013 section champion Colusa team, which was his first at the helm of the RedHawks.
Lay described his 2011 Panther squad as a “dream team of sorts,” featuring two nearly unhittable pitchers in addition to an offense that outscored its opponents 362-29, and as a result launched an absolute assault on the state record book setting no less than 15 new marks.
Senior hurlers Steven Perry and Tyler Wells set not only state, but national records as well, as both completed the season with 0.00 ERAs.
Perry, a right-hander, would toss five no hitters including four straight, go 24.1 innings with out yielding a hit and post seven shutouts, all of which set state records.
Wells, a lefty, who now has returned to coach the Panthers, struck out 121 to lead the Northern Section and finish in the top 10 statewide, then also had a monster year at the plate hitting .631 and setting another state mark for RBI with 78.
But Wells was in good company as three other seniors including James Bowen (.575), Perry (.533) and Dylan deWit (.514) also pummeled opposing pitchers, as did freshman Blake Vierra who posted .413 average.
For Lay what characterized this team, which had the added pressure of dealing with national media coverage and visiting scouts, is what he described as its “unbridled competitiveness,” and recalled its response to the potential of going undefeated as an example.
“As we began to advance in our schedule, some of the kids started talking about going undefeated. I always told them that the game of baseball was not designed for teams to go undefeated, but that team I feel took it as a challenge and were dead set on proving me wrong.”
They did precisely that in Lay’s final season as the Panthers’ full time head coach, not only going undefeated, but also finishing as the Cal Hi Sports No. 1 ranked small school team, the NSCIF Division V champions and the winners of the Tri-Cities League.
While his teams in Maxwell were some of the most dominant he has ever coached, his first team in Colusa was memorable in a different way, filled top to bottom with athleticism along with a tough and resilient nature that saw them finish the season 27-5, claim the Mid-Valley League title and capture the NSCIF Division III championship.
“We were fast, scrappy and our kids worked extremely hard to improve as the year went on,” said Lay of his team that twice bounced back after anomalous losses to win some of its most important games of the season.
Anchoring the RedHawk rotation in 2013 was a pair of finesse lefties in Ross Cervantes and Hayden Bailey who over a combined 125 innings finished with ERAs of 2.20 and 1.76 respectively.
The defense behind Cervantes and Bailey was strong up the middle starting with an extremely athletic middle infield that included Riley deWit and Lucas Corriea and extended into the outfield with Connor Herrick patrolling center field.
At first base, Kyle Cervantes was one of the section’s best with the glove and sported a .375 average, while Joe Ferrini provided a solid target behind the dish.
While the RedHawks could manufacture runs with their speed, sophomore call-up Matt Steidlmayer provided additional production in the middle of the lineup and completed the season batting .443.
Outfielder Esteven Frias finished with a .393 average and tied with Corriea for the team lead in RBIs as the RedHawks avenged an early season loss to longtime section power Winters by downing the Warriors 9-5 in the title game.
There are two things in particular that made this team stand out above his others in Colusa, as Lay explained.
“First, I was so excited to see this group have the success they did. The season before they were 12-17-1, and continued to grind and improve in 2013. The other thing I will always cherish was the opportunity to coach with my longtime assistant Russ Gardner and three former players from my Maxwell days, in Sonny Badaluco, Brandon Ottenwalter and Mitchell Barsotti.”
While coaches cannot play the game, their knowledge, preparation of the athletes along with the ability to put players in situations where they thrive can be the difference in a game or season, and Lay, given the indisputable success of the programs he has led, has proven to be a master of all three. ♣