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Evergreen’s 1980 baseball playoff journey included volcanic eruptions

Plainsmen’s season 40 years ago finished amid two major Mount St. Helens blasts

By , Columbian staff writer
5 Photos
The 1980 Evergreen High School baseball team included (top row, L-R) coach Greg Wallace, Doug Houser, Brian Bergerud, John Michel, coach Jeff Hudson; (middle row) Mike Wade, John Robison, Gary Lundberg, Monte Speyer, Randy Myers; (front row) Ed Taylor, Mark O'Shea, Randy Krause, Steve Lauritzen, Tony Dente, Bob Allinger.
The 1980 Evergreen High School baseball team included (top row, L-R) coach Greg Wallace, Doug Houser, Brian Bergerud, John Michel, coach Jeff Hudson; (middle row) Mike Wade, John Robison, Gary Lundberg, Monte Speyer, Randy Myers; (front row) Ed Taylor, Mark O'Shea, Randy Krause, Steve Lauritzen, Tony Dente, Bob Allinger. (Evergreen High School yearbook photo) Photo Gallery

Greg Wallace secretly hoped the aftermath of volcanic ash was covered under his Subaru wagon’s 50,000-mile warranty.

Abrasive and blinding ash darkened the region in late May 1980 from Mount St. Helens’ second major eruption in a week.

Wallace, Evergreen High School’s head baseball coach, did his best to safely navigate home. His team just won regionals in Tacoma to earn a state semifinal berth.

There’s little celebration when you’re driving 25 mph through falling ash, constant rain, and the skies “darker than the inside of a cow,” as one local sheriff’s officer described it. Every use of windshield wipers meant more damage etched into the glass.

“That ash, with the rain, made it like ice on the freeway,” Wallace recalled in an interview last month with The Columbian. Wallace is now 66, and a retired Evergreen Public Schools administrator and teacher. His two youngest children attend Washougal schools.

The 1980 season is one of the most storied teams in Evergreen’s baseball program history. The fourth-place finish — almost two weeks after the deadly eruption on May 18, 1980 — remains the program’s only state trophy.

But in order to reach the Class AAA state semifinals, the Plainsmen navigated through obstacles and odysseys in a special season that’s seared into their head coach’s memory.

Just like how one of the region’s defining moments in history became seared into memories of so many.

• • •

At 22, Wallace was fresh out Eastern Washington University when he returned to his high school alma mater as head baseball coach in 1977. The slow-but-steady build to the top came by Year 4 — 20 wins, league and district titles, and winning at regionals to get to the state semifinals in Kent.

Evergreen had one district tournament appearance in Wallace’s first three seasons. That youth grew into experience by 1980 behind a .309 team average, and a lineup that had speed and power. Two players — pro prospect and future draft pick John Michel (30th round by the Oakland Athletics in 1981) and Battle Ground transfer Tony Dente — hitting better than .450.

Pitching followed suit. Seniors Doug Houser and John Robison were known as off-speed hurlers, and became the final piece to the puzzle, Wallace said.

He also added, “we relied on our offense, because we hit so well. Our defense saved us a lot of times.”

By the time Evergreen played Capital of Olympia for the District IV championship on May 17 at Kiggins Bowl, Evergreen and Columbia River each went 9-3 to share the Clark-Cowlitz League title. Wallace knew his club’s potential from season’s beginning, and kept his promise that if Evergreen won districts, players could cut a piece of Wallace’s hair.

They had scissors ready after a 13-9 win over Capital.

“They weren’t really kind about pulling on that hair,” Wallace joked.

The landscape changed for Evergreen by reaching regionals. The next morning, a massive eruption that decapitated Mount St. Helens drastically altered the Northwest’s landscape.

• • •

The catastrophic May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted high school spring playoffs statewide. Baseball, golf, tennis and track and field events in eastern Washington were postponed or moved to new locations. Tennis and track and field state events were relocated to the Seattle area; officials in Yakima couldn’t clear several inches of ash in time to safely host.

Like many area school districts, Evergreen Public Schools was prepared for any possible emergency arising from Mount St. Helens. All trips north for sports and activities required extra air filters for busses and face masks for occupants, including Evergreen’s trip to Tacoma for baseball regionals.

Evergreen won its regional opener over Puyallup, 4-0, behind Houser’s complete-game six-hitter. Rain postponed the regional finale against Wilson of Tacoma to a Sunday afternoon, and Robison — the team’s only three-year letterwinner — pitched a four-hitter in the 6-3 win semifinal-clinching victory.

Meanwhile, volcanic ash rained down on Southwest Washington from the mountain’s second eruption in a week hours earlier. Much of Clark County went untouched from the May 18 blast, but this eruption sent new columns of destructive ash into the atmosphere, and showered the region.

Parts of Interstate 5 closed south of Olympia because stretches of road surface became coated with muddy ash. Rather than be stranded overnight with uncertainty looming, the Evergreen team booked tickets on Amtrak.

As it turned out, the games in Tacoma were half the fun. Players and coaches donned face masks for much of the train ride. Wallace, driving 25 mph on Interstate 5 back with his wife in the Subaru wagon, met his team at the Vancouver train station just before 11 p.m. A school bus came to drop off players at their homes.

“It wasn’t a fun time driving home,” Wallace said, recalling the worry for not only his players and coaches on the train, and himself on Interstate 5, but added, “they had fun on the ride home.”

Jeff Hudson was one of the assistant coaches who rode back with the players on the train.

“This has been my most unusual weekend, by far, in sports,” Hudson told The Columbian the following day in 1980.

Unusual, yet unforgettable.

• • •

Evergreen didn’t learn its semifinal opponent — Shadle Park — until midweek. The mountain’s eruption caused multiple state events to be postponed or moved. Evergreen had a five-game winning streak, but with seven losses, it had more defeats than the other semifinalists combined: Meadowdale (26-1), Newport of Bellevue (23-1) and Shadle Park (21-4).

Evergreen embraced the underdog tag. It went toe-to-toe with junior Mark Rypien, who tossed a three-hitter and also had the walk-off RBI single to break a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning. Twelve years later, Rypien won his second Super Bowl and was named Super Bowl XXVII MVP.

In Evergreen’s final game of the season for third and fourth place, Newport scored four runs in the sixth inning for a 6-5 win. Senior Randy Myers, who had 347 career Major League saves and won the 1990 World Series title with Cincinnati, started his final high school game in right field for Evergreen.

Wallace’s five-year stint at Evergreen is his only high school baseball head-coaching job. He resigned in 1981 after leading the Plainsmen back to regionals. He later coached American Legion baseball and spent time as a scout.

“Baseball has been really good to me,” Wallace said, “and I have nothing but fond memories of those kids.

“We had a lot of fun.”

Forty years later, Mount St. Helens still has stories to tell.

The same goes for Evergreen High School’s 1980 baseball team — 40 years later.