East Greene Baseball: NEVER SAY NEVER
By Brandon Hurley
Several intriguing layers build up to a generation-defining upset. A crowning jewel birthed from decades of frustration and near-misses.
The late Jim Valvano put it eloquently and brief, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
And boy, does that notion ever ring true in the game of baseball. Sports can often serve as a metaphor for life. Many of the most important lessons grow from the dusty infields of a baseball field. Long, hot summer nights spent creating memories with life-long friends, aimed at a common goal. The crack of a bat and the smack of a well-oiled glove rallying a community in the final years of a century old school district.
An unwavering belief, even in the midst of a devastating losing streak, can lead a team to spectacular milestones. During an intricate game like baseball, the ability to side-step a slump with a continued desire to achieve the greatest dreams can power a team to enormous heights.
Nearly 10 years ago to the day, the 2009 East Greene High School baseball team experienced one of those watershed moments most can only dream of. A storybook ending unfolded on the sun soaked fields of Iowa as July came to a close that year.
Staring at the end of a rather disappointing season as the playoffs began, a summer that started with such promise, the Hawks exploded on a run for the ages. It ended in the school’s first ever trip to the state tournament, sending a community into a frenzy. Which still, remains East Greene’s, the only state tournament in the program’s history (the Grand Junction school district consolidated with Jefferson-Scranton to form Greene County a few years later).
What made that summer even more remarkable is the route they took to reach Des Moines. It wasn’t easy, nor was it expected. The Hawks were a long shot to even get out of the first round of district play. Only the players and coaches in the dugouts, and most likely their parents, had any faith the small eastern Greene County club could make noise. The Hawks sat at an underwhelming 10-14 entering tournament play, but thanks to a talented pitching duo and a favorable draw, the Grand Junction squad made history.
As improbable as the journey was, the memories generated will last a life-time.
Aaron Lyons, a sophomore outfielder on the 2009 team who now coaches basketball in Perry, enjoys regular day dreams of pristine grass of Principal Park. They shared the field same field as future Chicago Cubs world champions Javy Baez and Kris Bryant once honed their skills on. The journey to Des Moines was the most memorable part, Lyons said, and for good reason. He is quick to point to East Greene’s perhaps unreasonable confidence as the summer temperatures bore down on the Hawks.
“We had the mindset we were going to win,” Lyons said. “We generally thought we would win.”
The Hawks were led by head coach Dana Fink, a baseball-lifer from the tradition rich soil of Kee (Lansing) in northeast Iowa. He coached at East Greene for a total of 13 years. Baseball was ingrained in his blood. The legendary Harris “Shooky” Fink, Dana’s father, built the youth baseball diamond in New Albin, and helped usher in baseball to many of the area’s youngsters.
Dana picked up his knowledge from his father, which carried over to the high school ballpark in Rippey. Motivated by its green, wooden grandstand and a backdrop of cornfields, Fink knew the Hawks could make a run during the home district slate, even as they entered the postseason on a three-game skid. After starting the year 6-3, East Greene lost five straight and eight of 10, tumbling well below .500. But there was something about the Hawks that kept Fink chugging along. Not that he would ever give up on one of his squads, but, they had talent and moxy, it was just a matter of stringing it all together.
“I always believed,” Fink said. “I didn’t see anyone we couldn’t compete with. And we were playing districts at our place. We always played well in Rippey.”
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of nerves and doubts along the way. Any team struggling to find wins while enduring several losing streaks is sure to have inner turmoil. Baseball is a long, marathon like trot to the finish, surrounded by sweltering heat and frustrating rain delays. But for a team that sticks together, rewards often come their way.
“They all seemed like they get along pretty (well),” Fink said of his young army of ballplayers. “We had different guys step up. It helps if you have team chemistry. They have to play for the team. Whatever it takes.”
As it remains today, the West Central was a strong baseball conference. Minus the departure of Coon Rapids-Bayard (a 2019 state qualifier) and Glidden-Ralston, who are now in the Rolling Valley Conference, it remains fairly intact. It was a relatively balanced group 10 years ago, with four squads tying for first. East Greene was just a game back but struggled with Des Moines Christian, CR-B and Madrid, getting swept by all three squads.
That tough regular season schedule is what Lyons believes prepared the Hawks for postseason play.
“We were playing in a 2A conference,” he said. “There was a lot of really good baseball. Our record wasn’t great, but we knew how to grind. We didn’t want our season to end.”
The Hawks’ postseason draw provided plenty of ammunition for a reboot. The four teams the Hawks knocked off to reach state were a combined 20 games below .500 at 41-61. Madrid was the only team with a winning record at 14-13 overall.
It was a fairly dominant run to Des Moines. The Hawks never trailed in the final two games, outscoring their four opponents, 24-10. Wes Onken and Tyler Cooklin combined for four wins and 29 strikeouts. Cooklin alone threw two complete games, striking out 17, including 10 strikeouts in the substate final-clinching win, 3-2 over Grand View Park Baptist.
East Greene opened district play with an 8-2 victory over Southeast Webster. Onken picked up the win, tossing just four innings but struck out three and only allowed three hits.
The Hawks then clawed their way to a 7-5 district semifinal win over Madrid, avenging a pair of regular season losses. Cooklin tossed his first complete game of the postseason, striking out seven in the win. The victory set up a district title showdown with GMG, in Ames. The Hawks had little trouble with their opponent, as Onken, the technical and nearly as deadly No. 2 to Cooklin’s overpowering heat, tossed a complete game, three-hitter, striking out nine.
It was a testament to the sophomore’s work ethic. Onken wanted to be the best, and it showed. He helped form a intimidating one-two punch, posting a 5-3 record to go with an ERA of 2.87. The then sophomore struck out 50 batters in 53 and two-thirds innings of work.
“Wes worked hard. We started pitching in February and Wes would be in there all the time,” Fink said. “And he’d catch for our other pitchers, too. He had a great attitude and was always working.”
The close-knit aspect of 1A baseball is what really brought the Hawks together. Many of the ballplayers grew up down the street from each other. They lived for the summer days of playing ball, and often held each other accountable. That shared confidence took the camaraderie to the next level. The arrogance was visibly present when sophomore fireballer Tyler Cooklin stepped to the mound. He compiled a 7-3 record that year to go with a 2.81 ERA and 64 strikeouts. He was a man among boys in the postseason, and had the swagger to go with.
“Cooklin was on the wild side, but when he stepped on the mound, he wasn’t losing,” Lyons said. “His swagger was that he was pitching 100 percent. He was more of a Clayton Kershaw type.”
Fink saw that fire in Cooklin’s eyes as well. The former Hawk would go on to play ball at Iowa Central Community College, earning all conference honors. He then took his talents to Penn College of Technology, helping capture the school’s first ever Eastern Athletic Conference title, which opened up a pathway to the pros. Cooklin took a trip down under and became a momentary star for the Doncaster Dragons of the Victorian Baseball League in Australia, winning MVP after batting a remarkable .406. He’s now an assistant at Penn College. The dominance began on the ball diamonds of Iowa.
“(Tyler Cooklin) pitched a lot of innings for us,” Fink said. “He was a real competitor, you had to go out and talk to him every once, but that’s how much he wanted to win.”
The fiery sophomore saved his best performance for the substate final against Grand View Park Baptist in Ankeny. He quite literally blew past the competition, holding GVPB hitless for the opening four frames, as he watched the Hawks take a 3-0 lead.
Jesse Luther, a senior catcher and the Hawks’ cleanup hitter, socked a two-out single down the third base line to score a pair of runs in the third inning, breaking a scoreless tie.
The Hawks could feel it. The reality of finally making a trip to the state tournament was inching closer and closer, Lyons, ever so intently focusing on the mound from his outfield position, could feel the impending result barreling down on him and his teammates. Even after Cooklin gave up his first hit in the fifth inning, the Hawks still held a comfortable three run lead.
“I’m thinking ‘we are going to win this,’” Lyons said. “Tyler was ready. He was striking guys out.”
Grand View made things tense in the seventh inning, scoring a pair of runs and placing runners at first and third with two outs. But, true to form, Cooklin came through in the clutch, striking out the final batter to send East Greene to their first-ever state tournament. Chaos ensued as the Hawks swarmed the Ankeny field, dog piling and clutching onto the cherished state tournament banner.
“I remember running by the fans and tears going down my eyes,” Lyons said. “We made it at least one time, and no one can ever take that away from us.
Celebrating going to state is a lot like winning a championship. You’re happy and ecstatic. You look around at all the faces, the brothers. You’ve given them everything, you can enjoy this together.”
Fink was unusually anxious as the game began. He told his players to leave him be, and let him focus on the game. He sat on the top edge of the dugout bench, zeroing in on the action on the field, slipping into the intensity. When it the final strike was caught, his emotions took over. Years of hard work, and decades of frustration disappeared as Fink and the East Greene community celebrated.
“I was really really proud of the team. I knew they could do it,” the coach said. “I was up there for 13 years, they’ve had some good players. I wanted to see these guys do it. It was a big challenge.
It was like a dream,” Fink continued. “The next day, I woke up and still couldn’t believe it.”
Lyons felt Fink was the missing link. He was the one who gave the Hawks the extra nudge they lacked. He fed them the various intricacies of baseball and taught them how to win close games. The offense was well balanced throughout the year, scoring more than 10 runs on several occasions, never relying on a single hitter to get the job done. Tom Beger was a consistent run producer throughout the playoffs, as were Jesse Priest and Zach Beyerink. They all made an impact. Fink’s faith in his guy trickled all the way down the lineup. He knew who would perform for him.
“When you talk about a guy who loves baseball, I think about Fink. He instilled that love in us,” Lyons said. “He’s an encyclopedia of knowledge. He can tell you what the weather was that day and what underwear he was wearing. He’s a good guy. He believed in us.”
Though East Greene’s Cinderella story came to a crashing halt in the first round of the state tournament, a 12-1 loss to top-ranked and eventual state champion Mason City Newman, the Hawks had achieved their goal. They even scored first in the Class 1A quarterfinal, injecting a glimmer of hope for the Hawk faithful, but the powerful Newman lineup took over from there. They were nearly untouchable all season long, entering the state tournament at 34-1. They scored 392 runs, smacked a ridiculous 46 home runs and batted an insane .396 as a team.
Even though their trip to Des Moines was rather short-lived, Lyons and his East Greene teammates ate it up.
“The end goal is the state tournament. It was the first time in school history, that’s all that matters,” Lyons said. “We were kings for a day.”
With the impending consolidation with Jefferson-Scranton a mere couple years down the road, the summer of 2009 almost felt like East Greene’s final hurrah. What a way to say goodbye to the long-standing sporting tradition of Grand Junction, huh?
“I remember how cool it was the to have the fans and the community come together,” Lyons said. “I’m an East Greene kid. The East Greene community, you couldn’t find a better one.”