Childhood memories came flooding back this week as DeMers and MacIver, both juniors, prepared to head to Omaha, Neb., for the CWS, the culmination of their mutual lifelong pursuit that persisted through travel ball, tournament teams and one of the most talented high-school squads the Bay Area has seen.
When Joe DeMers and Willie MacIver joined their Husky teammates in a joyous scrum Sunday after their win over Cal State Fullerton, celebrating a berth in the College World Series, it wasn’t their first dogpile.
The two lifelong friends had a similar cathartic hug-a-thon to commemorate their high school’s North Coast Section Division 1 championship in 2015 – in which DeMers pitched a complete game for College Park High of Pleasant Hill, Calif., against rival powerhouse De La Salle, and MacIver was the catcher.
“We just locked in the whole game,’’ DeMers recalled this week. “After I threw the last pitch, I got to dog pile with him on the bottom. That was special. That was probably my favorite moment playing with him – and then we got another one. Awesome.”
But we’re not done backtracking in time for these two. Let’s rewind to their 8-year-old Little League season in Pleasant Hill, playing together for the Pioneer League Giants. DeMers, a giant among boys, pitched a perfect season with MacIver’s dad as his coach. Meted out in four-inning increments – the maximum allowed by league rules – DeMers didn’t allow a baserunner all season.
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“I didn’t even realize until Willie’s dad told me five years later that I had a perfect season,” DeMers said with a laugh.
He was known as “Big Joe” back then, so big that no youth T-shirt fit him. DeMers had to borrow the adult model of Mr. MacIver.
Those memories came flooding back this week as DeMers and MacIver, both juniors, prepared to head to Omaha, Neb., for the CWS, the culmination of their mutual lifelong pursuit that persisted through travel ball, tournament teams and one of the most talented high-school squads the Bay Area has seen.
“I haven’t been on a team without Joe for a long time,” MacIver said.
And it wasn’t just those two – their amazing nucleus of baseball buddies who rose through the ranks together included, in the inner circle, Trevor Larnach, who was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins last week and will play in the College World Series for Oregon State; and Jeff Mitchell, who plays for Cal.
“All four of us have done it all together and been through everything together, so it’s really cool to see the success they’re also having,’’ MacIver said.
Did they envision it all moving to the grandest stage in college baseball – at least for three of the four?
“Absolutely,’’ DeMers said. “We’d play the old college MVP baseball game on PlayStation and pick colleges. It’s awesome to see that Trev and Willie and me finally got to go to the College World Series. It’s always been a dream of ours.’’
On Tuesday, MacIver recalled being at a youth tournament in Omaha at Rosenblatt Stadium, the legendary former home of the CWS, and taking in a few games with DeMers and the others.
“Talking to each other we said, ‘This would be so unreal to come here and play in this,’ ” MacIver said. “And it really hasn’t sunk in yet for us that we’re actually going to participate.”
Right in the middle of it all during their formative years was Andy Tarpley, who coached the boys on the Lamorinda travel team that went 60-3 when they were 14-year-olds and thrived in subsequent years. Tarpley became the coach of the College Park High School powerhouse that was ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America and produced six players that went on to four-year schools. Tarpley knew early that he had been gifted with a once-in-a-career group of youngsters, and it’s playing out as imagined.
“This was kind of the vision,” Tarpley said. “I knew how special it was, but a lot of work went into it. They had a thirst for the game, a joy for the game. As they started getting older, they became yard rats, the first guys at the field, the last to leave.”
A turning point, Tarpley said, was when he took the team to watch a Cal-Stanford game to give them a glimpse of what the next level looked like.
“All those big monsters with muscles on the field – they saw what it was going to take,’’ Tarpley said. “They fell in love with the weight room.”
DeMers, who played on a variety of Team USA squads and was one of the most coveted recruits in the country, committed to Washington first, as a sophomore. He visited virtually every Pac-12 school but said he knew instantly that Washington, his mom’s alma mater, was the place for him.
“My mom was telling me the whole time, ‘You’ll have that gut feeling,’ ” DeMers said. “That’s what I had here at Washington.”
MacIver made the same decision the next year, offering the Huskies the versatility of being a catcher and corner infielder. While not as highly regarded of a prospect as DeMers or Larnach, MacIver “willed himself’’ into Division I status through hard work, Tarpley said.
“Willie is such a great story,’’ Tarpley said. “He’s always had a love for the game. I always say he’s like a Labrador retriever with his tongue hanging out – ‘Throw the ball, and I’ll get it.’ “
DeMers has developed into the Huskies’ workhorse ace, compiling a 7-3 record with a 2.56 ERA and leading the Pac-12 with 123 innings. That includes a perfect game against UC Riverside in February and three saves – one in the opener of the Super Regional two days before he pitched eight strong innings in the clincher.
MacIver is their starting third baseman, though it is likely he will be a catcher in professional ball. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Colorado Rockies, and DeMers was taken in the 11th round by the Oakland A’s, ensuring that their run as teammates is nearing an end.
But for now, they are savoring it. Huskies coach Lindsay Meggs marvels at the interplay between the DeMers and MacIver that only can be forged through a lifelong bond.
“They’re like brothers,” Meggs said. “If you’ve ever had a brother, you know so much about him. You know what he’s going to say before he says it, or what he’s thinking while he’s thinking. They’re always touching each other in a way that’s either a headlock or shoving each other out of the way. It’s just a completely different relationship. If you have brothers, you understand it.”
Indeed, MacIver said, “Joe is just as close as my real brother is to me.”
Tarpley has talked with their parents about how it’s immediately like old times when the boys all come home from college for holidays. They play video games until the wee hours and fall asleep on the floor like they were 12. And in ongoing group chats with Larnach and Mitchell and other College Park alums, each one roots for the success of the others.
Of course, brothers squabble at times, and these guys aren’t immune. During the regionals in Coastal Carolina, MacIver said DeMers barked at him in the dugout.
“It was in the heat of the game,” he said. “There was a double play, and I didn’t throw as hard as he would have liked to second base. I’m like, ‘We still turned the double play, so what are you upset about, man. Take it easy.’
“It lasted about two seconds, and we were hugging it out the next inning. If we do (squabble), it’s not a real fight. We’ve never had any real serious fights between the two of us. It’s two pretty-easy going guys, and we just love to compete.”
And now, once again, they’re competing together – maybe for the final time.
“We’ve always known this was going to happen, and we all had this talent,” MacIver said. “Throughout the years, we’ve appreciated it for what it is. We’re just real lucky that we got to be in a town with a bunch of kids that had the same dream and the same work ethic.”