DEWITT – There have been 22 wins and zero losses. There have been walk-off wins and blowout wins. An epic ride. Or, as Shane Sikkema calls it, another summer in DeWitt.
The Central DeWitt baseball program has developed into one of the most premier programs in the state. If it is possible to maintain a low profile while winning 20-plus games in each of the past nine seasons and three district titles since 2016, the Sabers have done it.
On the surface, this season, where the Sabers remain one of three teams in the state with a spotless record, feels different. With this level of success, it feels like it has to be. But what if it's not?
"This season is another Central Sabers baseball season," Sikkema, who is in his ninth year on the top step of the dugout, said following a two-game sweep over South Tama earlier this month.
Sikkema tells each year's version of the varsity group the story of his first season in DeWitt. He served as an assistant to the team in 2004 as the team turned in a putrid 7-32 record. That was 15 years ago, but, considering the Sabers' dominance of the past decade, it feels more like 40. Since Sikkema took the reins in 2010, the team has evolved into a program.
The Sabers won districts in 2015 and 2016 before capturing another in 2018. They made it to the state tournament in 2016, when the coach's son, TJ Sikkema, recently drafted by the New York Yankees, was the ace of the staff. And they twice ended perennial power Davenport Assumption's season in 1-0 instant classics.
The triumphant runs all fizzled at inopportune times, though, like in 2016, when they blew a five-run lead at Principal Park, or last season, which came up a game short of a return to Des Moines, as Assumption returned the favor by besting the Sabers 4-2 in a substate final.
Last year's loss was crushing, as it quite literally hinged on shaky situational tactics and a few inches near the left-field foul pole.
But, for now-seniors like Lucas Bixby, it served as the ultimate reminder during the offseason.
“That motivated me throughout the offseason to get in the weight room and go to conditioning and work my tail off to be even better than last year," Bixby said.
While the victories are etched during the summer, the Sabers already won most of these games in the winter. The team requires all varsity hopefuls to enroll in a weight training program. No exceptions.
"I think the most important thing that people don’t realize is the weight room is mandatory in our program so if you don’t lift, you don’t play varsity baseball," Sikkema said. "They all know that and understand that. If they just want to play JV baseball, they don't have to lift but varsity guys have to lift with our strength and ability to battle through adversity is part of being in the weight room."
Sikkema and the coaching staff relax on hitting during the offseason, instead prioritizing pitching, where guys like Bixby, Garrett Finley and Alex McAleer threw during the winter months before contributing to a head-turning team ERA of 1.17 through 22 games.
Bixby has a 0.66 ERA through 31 2/3 innings. McAleer is down to 0.27 in 25 2/3 innings. Finley has a 1.66 clip (25 1/3 innings). Not to mention Luke Anderson (1.62) and Boomer Jonson (0.72), who would likely be the No. 1 pitcher on many other teams.
“I think our pitching has got us to where we are at," Bixby said. "Our top-five guys could all be our aces."
The Sabers can pull out the driver, too. Finley is hitting a whopping .514 this season with two homers and 28 RBIs and five others are hitting at least .300.
Finley and Bixby highlight a five-man senior class that also includes Devin Hurdle, Jacob Swanson and Drew Eden. Finley, whose sturdy frame doubled as a linebacker on the football team, isn't taking his last prep season for granted.
"It's just experience, honestly," Finley said. "It's constantly seeing pitches all these years and growing as a player. Now I get to finally put it all out there in one year, my senior year, so why leave anything out there?"
While the Sabers are firm with their expectations, the dugout is hardly run like an army base. The group is loose, the dugout loud with encouragement, proving Sikkema hasn't let winning distract from the game's main purpose.
"There are two things about baseball: it’s a game of failure and it’s a game of having fun, and how those two are put together is something we talk about all the time," Sikkema said.