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Lewis-Clark State baseball is fueling second chances for its players

Mar. 31—The Lewis-Clark State baseball team's history is full of second-chances. There are players past and present who can credit months and years spent in Lewiston for successful ends to baseball careers that hit some bumps on the road.

There are some players on the team who had nowhere else to go. Some were left scrambling to find a home due to unforeseen circumstances. And there've been some who, before suiting up for the Warriors, gave up on baseball altogether.

One of those players who at one time had quit, Seth Brown, is getting ready for his sixth year in the major leagues as a member of the Oakland Athletics.

In a video posted by Lewis-Clark State in 2020 called "Wake Up with the Warriors," Brown explained how he felt out of place at Linn-Benton Community College and didn't have the structure he needed. He ended up taking a year off from the sport, and from college, and worked at a gravel pit for a year.

"I don't know if Seth ever really lost his love for baseball," LCSC assistant coach Allen Balmer said. "I think he just had some things in his life that derailed him from having that opportunity. Once he got here, you knew what he was about. It took a minute to get his feet wet and learn a few things but he was always kind of a hard worker and a grinder."

Brown played at Linn-Benton Community College before transferring to LCSC in 2013. He returned to baseball before joining the Warriors. A Linn-Benton coach, Greg Hawk, recommended LCSC to Brown. Hawk advised him that the path would not be easy for him. And it wasn't.

Brown had to redshirt during the 2014 season. After the 2015 season was over, the former Warrior was named a second team NAIA All-American, earned a spot on the NAIA World Series all-tournament team and was a World Series champion. Now, he's the second-highest paid position player on the Athletics.

Not bad for a player that had given up on the sport.

"It took me that year of redshirting to learn that way — that Warrior lifestyle off the field," Brown said. "It's a classroom thing, it's a life thing, everything you do. It's giving your absolute best in every aspect of life."

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Brown were players who experienced the highest level of college baseball before transferring to the Warriors.

Former player Jack Johnson, and current LCSC senior and defending World Series MVP Isaiah Thomas had experienced the peak of the sport: Omaha, Neb.

Johnson and Thomas both made the NCAA College World Series. Johnson made it with the University of Washington Huskies in 2018 and Thomas went with the Vanderbilt Commodores in 2019 and 2021.

Both players were in very different situations before joining the Warriors.

Johnson, a Seattle-area native, joined the Huskies as a preferred walk-on in 2016. He had gotten some playing time his three years with the team, but struggled to string together consistent starts.

Thomas had been committed to Vanderbilt since his sophomore year of high school and was drafted in the 39th round of the MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies in 2018. Thomas elected to forgo the minors out of high school to go to college. During his time with Vanderbilt, Thomas had become a top contributor on the 2021 national runners-up and was projected to get selected in the top three rounds of the MLB Draft. Thomas ended up leaving Nashville due to personal reasons and, after an opportunity with the University of Oregon fell through, arrived in Lewiston.

Johnson and Thomas had two different experiences at their previous destinations and two different paths in the sport, and missed being teammates by two years. But both of them bought into what LCSC was selling and quickly became elite players on their respective Warrior squads.

"It was an awesome fall (my first year at Lewiston)," Johnson said. "I had always heard about L-C stories and how the program was ran hard. And when we showed up, that's exactly what it was. It was the hardest fall that I ever went through. ... I remember some of my favorite memories are early work in the infield. Those were the hardest infield practices I ever went through. ... We all improved considerably, more than other teams I've seen in the past."

While with LCSC, Johnson was named to the all-World Series team and was all-Cascade Conference. Last season, Thomas was just the third player to not play for the World Series champions and still be named World Series MVP.

"I was sort of given a lifeline," Thomas said. "I needed a place to go and these gracious people helped out with that. ... It's the whole 'Last Chance U' feeling. Backs against the wall. I'm super grateful for this opportunity. ... they took a chance (on me)."

Sometimes athletes transfer to a lower level of athletics than they were at before. A common thread of thought when they succeed is that they were good enough to make it to DI in the first place — of course they should succeed in the NAIA level. But that's a gross understatement.

Johnson and Thomas were and are extremely talented, for sure. But the Warriors have 19 World Series championships and a whole hallway in the P1FCU Activity Center of jerseys and memorabilia. Like the ghosts of World Series past.

Talent is the bare minimum at that kind of program.

"I think this place is truly a melting pot," LCSC coach Jake Taylor said. "We take guys from all walks of life, all parts of the country. And they come here and most guys fall in love with it. Players arrive here for a variety of reasons and we just want them to get absorbed into the culture and the community and play to the best of their ability."

Johnson and Thomas are a couple examples of former DI players looking to get a second chance, but they're not the only cases.

Junior infielder Dominic Signorelli is another. Well, not quite. It's hard to categorize his situation as a "second chance" considering his first one was over before it began.

Signorelli had originally committed to play for Boise State's fledgling baseball program. The Broncos started their first season in 2020 and were 14 games into the year before the COVID-19 pandemic nixed the remaining games on the schedule. The Boise State athletic department cut the program soon after, leaving Signorelli without a home.

He played one year at Big Bend Community College in 2021. After, he transferred to the Warriors.

He battled for a starting spot on the team in 2022 and, eventually, earned the starting third baseman job. He has steadily improved each year with the program. This year, his third with the team, he's leading LCSC and the Cascade Conference in home runs.

"I don't want to say it gets easier once you buy in," Signorelli said. "But once you have the mentality of going hard or working toward being a Warrior, it becomes more fun. The game comes easier."

All of these success stories lead to the same conclusion: the Warriors create an environment that breeds success. But that's already known. Nineteen World Series titles is a pretty decent sign of that.

Players have pointed to two things that help everyone buy in, no matter where they came from: the coaches and the area.

Every current LCSC coach is also a former player. Some played for the late legendary coach Ed Cheff, including Taylor and Balmer (who also heads recruiting efforts).

When players join the program and see those coaches, all of whom are involved years after their playing days, they know what they're being taught has a purpose. They know the tough practices and training will actually yield results. And they know that when the coaches talk about the "Warrior Way," it's not just something that looks good on a T-shirt or in a news release.

Plus, there's the town itself.

In Lewiston, there's not as many distractions or outside noise as there is in cities like Nashville, Seattle or even Boise. If you're in Lewiston to play baseball, you're in Lewiston to play baseball.

As to why LCSC tends to attract and recruit so many different players from so many levels of the sport, it's simple. If ability and character is there, then that player can help them win. And winning isn't just a goal for the Warriors, it's the standard.

"I think the structure of the program definitely helps," Balmer said. "The way we go about things. We probably have a little more parameters than most teams do. We demand some things on and off the field that are different and kind of faster paced. But talking to (Cheff) over the years, it's kind of the right way (to do things). .. If you can learn those things and we can instill those in them, even if they don't get (to the MLB), when they go in the real world, their work ethic is off the charts."

Each player has their own story as to what brought them to Lewis-Clark State. But once they come to Lewiston, they're a Warrior. And that doesn't end when baseball does.

"Players learn to love the Valley and enjoy their time in Lewiston," Johnson said. "When I showed up to Lewiston it was like 'Damn, where the hell am I?' It was my first time living full-time outside of Seattle. But when you're leaving, (Lewiston) feels like home. And it's a place that you always want to come back to."

Kowatsch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, tkowatsch@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.