By BRETT MARSHALL
It's been a long, and sometimes tedious climb up the baseball ladder for Dustin Doze while coaching the Syracuse High School team.
He was an assistant coach to the Bulldogs in 2005-2006 and then was the head coach during the 2007-2008 seasons.
After that he took time away from the spring position, but returned this year and has guided the Bulldogs to an 18-4 record and a berth in Friday's Class 2-1A state tournament at Soden's Grove in Emporia.
The Bulldogs earned a No. 4 seed in the eight-team field and will face fifth-seeded Valley Falls (17-6) at 1:30 p.m. In the tourney opener, top-seeded and defending champion Sedan (21-2) faces Lyndon (9-14) at 11 a.m. In the lower half of the bracket, it will be St. Paul (19-2) vs. Mission Valley (14-9) at 4 p.m. and Little River (20-3) vs. Medicine Lodge (15-8) at 6:30 p.m. Quarterfinal winners will advance to Saturday's 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. semifinals with the third place and championship contests slated for 3 and 5:30 p.m.
Syracuse won the Elkhart regional with a narrow 10-9 semifinal win over Sublette and then rolled by host Elkhart, 12-5, in the championship game last week.
For Doze, though, his focus is now solely on Valley Falls.
"We don't know too much about them, but they'll be a good team," Doze said. "We're just focused on game one and then if we win, we'll worry about playing the next game."
The Bulldogs have relied on strong pitching and defense with an offense that has relied on seniors JD Howell, Gary Parks and Miguel Romero and junior Jacob Barnes.
Howell, a lanky 6-2 pitcher as well, has hit for a .508 average while driving in 19 runs for the 'Dogs. Parks has averaged .484 with 25 RBIs.
Romero, who moved into the district his year, has a team-high three home runs and 31 RBIs while hitting at a.387 clip. Barnes is close behind at .381 while catcher Scott Schwieterman is batting .354 with a home run.
"We've had good senior leadership and we've been able to get good pitching for the most part," Doze said. "Our defense has been solid most of the season, too, but we're really fortunate in that our pitching has been pretty consistent."
Howell has been the busiest starter for the Bulldogs, compiling a 7-1 record and has recorded 58 strikeouts in just 35 innings.
Barnes is 4-0 with 25 strikeouts in 26 innings pitched while Parks is 3-1 with 29 strikeouts in just 16 innings. Romero, who has been a closer for Doze, is 2-2 with 51 strikeouts in just 27 innings.
"Gary was out early with arm troubles, but he's really gotten back in shape and has pitched well of late for us," Doze said of Parks.
The fact that Syracuse has not been to the state tournament since 1999 and made an early exit with a first-round loss doesn't bother Doze at all.
"This team seems to be able to focus on the current season, the game being played and is not too concerned about that other stuff," Doze said.
Doze said one reason the team's pitching has done so well is because of the play of Schwieterman behind the plate.
"He's just a very good catcher, defensively, and he handles the pitchers well, knows what to do to help them," Doze said.
Syracuse had lost in the regional final the last two years — to Ellis in 2010 and to Sublette a year ago.
It wasn't too long ago that Syracuse suffered through .500 seasons and winning just six games over a two-year period in the mid 2000s.
"I think having played Lakin, although we lost to them, will be a big help to us at state," Doze said of two of the team's four losses.
"Lakin always has a very good team and we saw what they're like. We'll have to be at our best, but the kids are excited to be going."
The other two losses came against Moscow (9-3) in a doubleheader split and then a mind-boggling 22-2 loss to Elkhart in the second game of a doubleheader, in which Parks hurt his arm.
"That's a game that just got out of hand, we had people pitching that normally wouldn't be on the mound," Doze said. "We ran out of pitchers that day."
Syracuse has outscored its opponents 227-91 and considering Elkhart scored 22 of those in one game, the Bulldogs yielded just 69 runs in the other 21 games.
"I think the kids have done a good job in getting this record and we got a decent draw for the first round," Doze said. "We'll just play game one like there's no tomorrow, because if we lose, there won't be a tomorrow."