Zender shows the way for Kentwood baseball

Nothing short of excellence is practiced and preached on the baseball field at Kentwood High School each spring.

Kentwood coach Mark Zender talks to his players at batting practice on Monday afternoon. The Conquerors are preparing to face Walla Walla in a state Class 4A opener Saturday in Puyallup.

Kentwood coach Mark Zender talks to his players at batting practice on Monday afternoon. The Conquerors are preparing to face Walla Walla in a state Class 4A opener Saturday in Puyallup.

Nothing short of excellence is practiced and preached on the baseball field at Kentwood High School each spring.

Just ask Garrett Stewart, a senior player who has been profoundly influenced by Mark Zender, the calm and collected man behind the Conquerors’ consistent success on the diamond.

“He’s a great coach,” said Stewart, a .290-hitting center fielder for the Class 4A state playoff-bound Conquerors. “He definitely strives for us to be excellent. That’s one of the his main words he uses all the time – excellence. He always uses the phrase, ‘Excellence is a way of life.’ It’s not just us being athletes, but us being great all-around people … to be the best at everything.”

Even when the Conks struggle in the late going, something they seldom do.

“Even when we are down, he’s always positive,” Stewart said. “He stays calm. In a game of baseball, that helps. It’s like, ‘OK, we can come back.’ “

Kentwood recovered from a hard-fought 6-2 loss to Puyallup in the regional playoffs last weekend to beat Gig Harbor 3-1 to secure the West Central District No. 3 spot to state. Shane McGuire doubled and drove in two runs for Kentwood.

The Conquerors (21-7) take on Walla Walla in the first round of the state playoffs at 10 a.m. Saturday at Puyallup’s Heritage Park.

State playoffs and the Conks go hand-in-hand. They have made it to state six of the last seven years, having won six South Puget Sound League Northeast Division titles in that span.

Zender has followed Jon Aarstad’s successful eight-year run at Kentwood with a great run of his own.

He was an Aarstad assistant when Kentwood locked down the program’s second state title in 2010, then as the program’s head coach he led the Conks to the crown two years later, beating Richland in the final.

“To taste it twice, it’s pretty fun,” Zender said of the championship.

Previously at O’Dea, Zender guided the Fighting Irish to three state berths in 11 years. Zender, who played baseball at Seattle University where he earned his degree in education, teaches marketing at Kentwood.

With a week to prepare, Zender likes his team’s chances this weekend. Those who come out of the rugged West Central District typically do well at state.

“There’s no doubt about that. There’s probably five teams from our district that are capable of winning the state title,” said Zender, whose Conks hung close but came up short in two showdowns against their nemesis, Puyallup, in the league and district playoffs. Puyallup wound up with the district title.

Still, as much as the coach knows his own team, the state playoffs are an unknown.

“You never know what you’re going to get. So I guess, to some extent, it’s a crap shoot except, I think, that if you’re better than the other team, your chances of winning are better than if you’re not,” Zender said. “It’s not a pure crap shoot, but you’re never sure of what you’re getting, even if you’re getting a good (scouting) report on a team.”

The scouting report on Kentwood is solid. It has a balanced lineup with two strong arms in ace Jordan Jones, a University of Washington commitment, and No. 2 Ben Wadowski, and plenty of power to get it done.

Good pitching is one thing, but timely hitting and flawless defense go far in the playoffs, Zender said.

“If we just focus on ourselves, we’re fine,” he said. “Nobody will beat us, we’ll beat ourselves or win it by playing our game.”

The Conks are a reflection of their coach – organized, focused, poised.

“The best style is to be laid back, at least on the outside. I learned that as I’ve gotten older,” Zender said. “It’s not easy to do, but I can’t overreact. I have to react in a way that it immediately restores confidence.”

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