For years, high school-aged baseball players in northeastern Washington had limited opportunities to play in the highest level of American Legion.
To do so, they’d have to try out for one of the Spokane-area AAA teams. In most cases, they’d be cut.
When that happened to 2011 Chewelah graduate Nick Naccarato last summer, his coach, Luke Jeanneret, had had enough. Jeanneret decided to do something about it. He co- founded the Northeast 49ers AAA team and sought membership in the Area 3 (Eastern Washington) league last year.
Forming a team wasn’t a slam dunk, though. Not all the Area 3 teams wanted to add the Northeast 49ers – which consisted of players from mostly Colville, Chewelah, Riverside, Deer Park, Kettle Falls and Selkirk.
Jeanneret convinced the league to admit his team. The 49ers struggled mightily last summer, finishing 3-17 in league and 14-35 overall.
To the teams that didn’t want to add the 49ers, those records were proof that they weren’t competitive enough to be in the league.
“When they’d try out for teams, nobody knew who they were,” Jeanneret said. “They were good athletes but not always pure baseball players. I got tired of them not making Spokane teams. This was a helluva dream. We wondered at first if the kids would buy into it.”
Nick Schuerman, who was hired to coach the team, knew it would work – especially this summer. With 10 of his 12 players returning this summer, Schuerman expected a much-improved team.
And he had plenty of motivational fodder.
“We had to be voted into the league and there were some coaches that voted against us,” Schuerman said. “I don’t want to name names, but we kind of played with an edge all summer because of that.”
Schuerman said the project wouldn’t have succeeded without some key support.
“The support from our communities has been overwhelming,” he said. “All these small businesses have stepped up. We couldn’t do the things we wanted to do – like have nice uniforms and travel to tournaments – if it wasn’t for them.”
The turnaround this summer has been nothing short of magical. The 49ers captured the league championship last week, taking three of four games from the reigning champs, the Spokane Bandits, who had won six of the last eight titles.
“It’s been an unreal summer. Kind of a Cinderella story, to be honest,” Schuerman said. “They wanted a chance to play against the big boys and show what they have, that the schools up north can play some baseball. Our product is as good as any of the select teams out there.”
The 49ers finished 15-5 in league and take a 36-9 overall record into one of four Super Regionals. The top two teams from each of the four regional pods will advance to the state tournament. The 49ers are one of four Area 3 teams headed to Super Regionals, and they open Saturday at Colfax.
The other Super Regional qualifiers are the Bandits, the Pullman Patriots and Spokane Cannons.
The 49ers needed to win three of four games in back-to-back doubleheaders against the Bandits last week to clinch the league title. The Bandits, behind Gonzaga Prep pitcher David Machtolf, beat the 49ers 4-2 in the first game, but the 49ers won the next three 6-2, 4-1 and 9-6.
All but one of the 49ers hail from rural northeast towns. But that one player, 2012 Central Valley graduate Ryan Leone, has had a significant impact.
Leone, a three-year starter at CV, leads the 49ers in hitting with a .377 average. He also has a team-high 49 stolen bases. He’s signed to play at Yakima Valley Community College.
“He’s the best center fielder in the state of Washington,” Schuerman said. “He took five hits away with his speed in one game against the Bandits. I think he’s the best athlete in Spokane.”
Leone has played with the 49ers the last two years. It’s not so much that he slipped through the cracks before landing with the 49ers. He had plans to move to Louisiana before last summer, but he changed his mind. By that time, a couple of the select teams in the area were full and the Cannons wouldn’t take him.
“We just called around and I caught on with them last minute,” Leone said. “It wasn’t really organized, but I just wanted to play.”
Leone has put several hundred miles on his 2000 Dodge Ram truck, driving 90 minutes to Chewelah for practices and games.
“It was hard at first because I didn’t know anybody,” Leone said. “It took me at least three weeks before I knew all the names. We played some name games at practice to get comfortable with each other.”
Leone struggled at the start of the season, but began finding his way toward the end. It was similar to the trend of the team’s play.
“There were other teams that wanted me to play with them this year, but I knew this would be a fun season with the 49ers so I stuck with them,” Leone said. “The chemistry of this team has been great. It’s the best I’ve ever been on in terms of chemistry.”
Leone said the 49ers were much better than advertised last year.
“We weren’t as bad as our records show,” Leone said. “We lost a bunch of one-run games. We couldn’t finish games last year.”
That hasn’t been a problem this summer.
The contributors to the success have been many. Naccarato, a 2011 Chewelah graduate, has the second-best batting average (.373) on the team to go with 26 stolen bases and a team-high 36 RBIs. He’s also in the 49ers’ pitching rotation and has posted a 6-2 record with four saves and a 3.12 ERA.
Cody Sweat (Chewelah) has the best pitching record at 7-0 with a 3.36 ERA. Sam Sprague of Colville is 5-0 with a 0.98 ERA and Caleb Wiebe of Chewelah is 6-1 with a 2.53 ERA.
Naccarato, who played at Big Bend CC last year, has signed to play at Community Colleges of Spokane next year. He’s looking forward to the postseason.
“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Naccarato said.
Wiebe sees no reason why the 49ers can’t make a deep run in the postseason.
“We can go as far as we want to,” Wiebe said. “It’s been a lot of fun being around other guys that want to win. It’s not always like that when you’re on other teams.”
“It’s been ridiculous how well we’ve done this summer,” Sprague said. “Last year we were all new and hadn’t played together. We’ve enjoyed beating the big boys (from Spokane), that’s for sure.”
Sprague hopes the 49ers advance to state.
“That would be a chance of a lifetime,” he said.
And something the 49ers could only dream about a year ago.