Lakewood softball on the rise

Lakewood players wait at home plate to greet junior Abigail Swartz after she belted a home run during the Tigers' 7-2 victory over Pueblo Central on Sept. 13 at Aurora Sports Park. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)

AURORA — It’s been more than 20 years since Lakewood’s softball team won back-to-back Class 4A state titles.

However, memories of those state championship teams coached by Ray Baker are still in the forefront for the Tigers’ program. Lakewood’s softball titles from 1997 and 1998 to this day are the lone state team champions titles won by a girls sports program at Lakewood.

Lakewood softball coach Dannielle Engler, left, has made it a point to remind her players about the past success of the Tigers' softball program. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)

“We talk about Ray Baker all the time. We see him all the time. We talk about the history of this program,” said Lakewood coach Dannielle “Gunner” Engler, a 2005 Lakewood graduate who played for Baker before he retired from coaching. “We let them (players) know that our goal is to bring back that TigerBall and what that really means.”

Baker’s 1997 squad claimed the state title with a dominating 14-3 victory over Jeffco rival Dakota Ridge at the old Olympic Park in Aurora. Lakewood traveled to Grand Junction to repeat as state champions the following year with a 6-0 shutout victory against Niwot in the title game.

Engler was an assistant coach before taking over the helm last season. The influence of Baker, who still makes a lot of the Tigers’ games, can still be felt. The softball field at Lakewood High School is named after Baker.

“I love Bake (Ray Baker) and I really look up to him and appreciate everything that he does for the LHS softball program,” Engler said.

Lakewood remained a powerhouse in Jeffco even after moving up to the 5A classification, but hasn’t won a conference title since the 1998 season.

Lakewood sophomore Reagan Medina (32) slides into second base with a double Sept. 13 during the Dave Sanders Memorial Softball Tournament. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)

“Our big goal is to get us back on the map,” Engler said after a 7-2 victory over Pueblo Central on Sept. 13 during the Dave Sanders Memorial Softball Tournament at Aurora Sports Park. “We are definitely back.”

The Tigers haven’t had a winning season in more than a decade, but are off to their best start since the glory days of the late-1990s and early-2000s under Baker. Lakewood (13-2 record) has already surpassed its win total from last year when the Tigers went 10-13 in Engler's first year as the head coach.

“It’s really big and it is keeping our energy up too,” Lakewood junior Abigail Swartz said of the Tigers’ strong start to the season. “It’s really fun to play with all these girls. All of them are really happy and we want to win.”

Swartz is one of Lakewood’s young and talented core that has the Tigers eyeing a return to the site — Aurora Sports Park— of the 5A state tournament next month. Lakewood and Columbine co-host the Dave Sanders Memorial Softball Tournament every year. The final two days of the tournament are played in Aurora.

“We really what to get here,” Swartz said of hopefully playing back at the Aurora Sports Park during the state tournament Oct. 25 and 26. “It’s a huge drive for us this year.”

Before Lakewood focuses on the state qualifying regional tournaments, the Tigers must face the gauntlet of the 5A Jeffco League. Lakewood begins conference play Tuesday afternoon on the road against Dakota Ridge.

“We are ready to roll,” Engler said of starting conference play this week. “This is our turn into the season. Our big goal is to stick our playing our game no matter who we play.”

Chatfield and Columbine are the clear favorites heading into league play. The Chargers and Rebels have a combined record of 29-0.

“It’s going to get harder, but our goal this year was to make it to the playoffs,” Swartz said of starting league play. “We are going to keep going. We aren’t going to stop this year.”

Lakewood junior Abigail Swartz, right, believes the Tigers can make some noise and compete with the likes of Chatfield and Columbine when Class 5A Jeffco League play begins this week. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)