Monday night’s game at David Story Field felt more like a homecoming than a gathering of foes on the diamond. That’s because former Lower Columbia College skipper Eddie Smith made his return to Longview with his new team in tow — Division I Utah Valley.
Smith squared off against his former assistant and current LCC coach Kurt Lupinski as the stands were lined with LCC players past, present and (potentially) future to catch the battle between overlapping eras of Red Devils baseball.
The Red Devils put up a fight against the D-I roster, but it was the Wolverines who ultimately took control for a 5-2 win.
Smith served as the leading man for the Red Devils from 2014-2017 and captured NWAC Titles in 2015 and 2017 during his run. The return to Story Field sparked a multitude of memories for Smith as he reminisced on his time as a Red Devil.
“This place is the only place that’s ever felt like home in my professional career…all those feelings and memories, they’re wonderful and (it’s) just awesome to be back here in this town (and) on this field,” Smith said.
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Smith has made stops at several Division I programs, most recently as an assistant at LSU before taking the reins of the Wolverines in the offseason. But with other stops at Virginia, Tulane and Notre Dame, people sometimes are shocked to learn the place with the most meaning to him.
“I frequently get asked ‘What’s been your favorite stop along the way?’” Smith said. “And I think people sometimes are surprised, but it’s an easy answer for me, it’s Lower Columbia. I absolutely loved my time here. I love the level, I love the NWAC, I love the teaching that goes on here.”
Smith and the Wolverines were able to fit the stop in on a west coast road trip for the Wolverines, slotting the game with the Devils between series’ with Washington State and the University of Portland.
Smith’s journey to Utah Valley exemplifies the ideal scenario for LCC ballplayers. He himself played in the NWAC at Centralia College before making the leap to Division I to play at Notre Dame. Now as a coach he’s shown that the NWAC can also set a path to the D-I through the coaching ranks. That sort of ascension through the baseball landscape provides a blueprint and gives current LCC players something to work toward, so naturally Lupinski jumped at the chance to play the Wolverines.
“Great opportunity for our players who of course have dreams and aspirations of playing Division I baseball and hopefully making it onto pro ball for some of them,” Lupinski said.
Smith hopes the Red Devils can see the journey and realize that it’s possible to keep on moving up as long as they’re not afraid of hard work.
“I hope it’s inspiring to people. Having been in an NWAC dugout myself as a player, it was the dream to play Division I baseball and I was fortunate enough to realize that dream,” Smith said. “That was the most rewarding thing about coaching at this level, aside from the team championships, were these guys that had a dream of getting that opportunity to go on.
“It’s just that living proof, living motivation, living reminder that it’s real, it happens here. Hopefully that was a little motivation for these guys.”
Smith has brought a pair of former Red Devils to the top level of the NCAA along with him as Michael Forgione and Kade Kryzsko are both assistants with the Wolverines. Of course, they weren’t the only former Devils at Story Field on Monday.
The head coaches at both R.A. Long and Kelso, Ryan Littlefield and Tyler Parsons, both stopped in to see the Devils take on their former skipper. Former LCC assistant, RAL and Rainier head coach Jason Castro also stopped in to see Smith’s new team in action. And local high school players, some of them with hopes of becoming LCC recruits themselves, made their way to the Lower Columbia campus to see the game.
With all the fanfare, it’d be easy for the game to become afterthought, but once the pleasantries were made and everyone had their fun reminiscing about the past, there was still a game to play, and you can be sure both teams wanted to win.
“We always tell the players, regardless of the lineup, regardless of the opponent, regardless of where the game is being played, you play the game with a passion and a spirit and with the intent to win,” Smith said. “They turn the scoreboard on, we’re here to beat somebody.”
The Devils, in the midst of a torrid 13-game win streak in the NWAC heading into the matchup, shared that mindset.
“We definitely prepared, just as Utah Valley did, to be very professional,” Lupinski said. “We want to win a ballgame and as coach Smith mentioned, you know you’re going to get laser focus from him.”
The competitive nature of the game surprised some in attendance, including those in uniform.
“At the plate meeting the umpires kind of asked us ‘Is this an exhibition? Do you guys want us to keep the lineups?’” Smith said. “And we made it real clear that we’re here to win.”
Even with the intense competitive drive between the two coaches that once shared the first-base dugout at Story Field, there’s no love lost between the two.
“He’s a great friend of mine, we were able to win a championship here together and he was a big piece of a lot of other championships and so it’s really cool to be able to have this opportunity,” Smith said.
The Devils actually made a statement early, taking the first lead of the contest in the bottom of the third inning thanks to an RBI single from Kyle Parkman and a passed ball to go up 2-0, but Smith’s squad made sure the Devils’ surge was short-lived.
Utah Valley’s Brandon Luna launched a no-doubt homer over the wall in left field in the fourth and walked out of the box knowing he got every stitch of it. Then some aggressive base running later in the inning on a first and third situation resulted in an error and a run for the Wolverines, tying the game at 2-2.
The Wolverines took the lead in the fifth with another first and third score before Luna added insurance with an RBI single in the seventh.
“They played with a spirit that embodies this program and it’s tough to beat, (but) we were able to find a way to do that today and it was a really cool night,” Smith said.
Lupinski knew the Devils would have their hands full with the Wolverines, and their metal bats, but was thrilled with his squad’s showing.
“Our guys answered the bell in a lot of ways, we were toe-to-toe with those guys... Really proud of our guys for seizing an opportunity and making sure that we got better today,” Lupinski said.
The loss technically snaps the Red Devils’ 13-game win streak, but that streak is still intact against NWAC opponents, where the Devils will hope to keep in rolling this weekend. LCC (17-4, 32-9 league) has an identical record to Tacoma and will face the Titans in a four-game series this weekend to determine who wins the NWAC West Region. The Devils will need to win the series as the Titans hold the tiebreaker in case of a split.
The Red Devils’ current streak comes in response to a four-game skid last month that saw them lose three out of four games to Pierce before coming back to life with a vengeance.
“I have to give the players so much credit, especially after that Pierce series,” Lupinski said. “A lot of adversity, a lot of guys having to look in the mirror and question their approach, question how things were going for them personally and the team really rallied.”
But before the Devils get back to their regularly scheduled slate, Monday’s trip down memory lane provided a chance for the Devils to celebrate their program and its past successes, hopefully helping to pave the way to bigger things in the future for all parties involved.
“Maybe down the road we’ll also get some Red Devils headed down to be Wolverines,” Lupinski said.
Smith had some parting words for the Red Devil faithful before heading south to prepare to play the Portland Pilots on Wednesday.
“I thank (LCC athletic director) Kirc (Roland) and Kurt,” Smith said. “This place has a place in my heart that it’ll always have. I sometimes wake up in a daydream that I’m still coaching here. That’s how much this place means to me, that’s how much those years meant to me.
“I truly mean it when I say if I could have stayed here forever I would have.”
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