Joe Davidson

How Elk Grove baseball became one of area’s greatest dynasties – any sport or gender

Elk Grove coach Jeff Carlson watches from the dugout as the Thundering Herd plays Granite Bay at Sacramento City College on May 22, 2015.
Elk Grove coach Jeff Carlson watches from the dugout as the Thundering Herd plays Granite Bay at Sacramento City College on May 22, 2015. Sacramento Bee file

Guy Anderson went nostalgic this week with mixed emotions.

The old coach reflected on the Big Red Dynasty of the 1980s, when his famed Cordova Lancers ruled the regional baseball landscape. Anderson presided over four consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division I North championship teams from 1981-84 and five in a seven-year stretch.

Now 80 and in his second season as an assistant coach at Capital Christian, Anderson sighed and accepted his former program’s place in history.

It’s Elk Grove’s game now. The Thundering Herd under coach Jeff Carlson are in the midst of one of the greatest dynasties in section history, either gender, any sport.

Elk Grove last weekend won its 10th Division I North title since 2002. The Herd now set aim on their eighth section banner since 2002 starting Friday at Sacramento City in Game 1 of a best-of-three series against South champion Tracy. Elk Grove seeks its ongoing record 10th D-I title, the most for any upper-division programs in the section (above D-IV).

Small-school Central Catholic of Modesto has won 11 section titles.

Elk Grove’s staying power has been tested this season, as it returned just three starters and endured a slow start amid a taxing schedule against powerhouse programs designed to make the team stronger. The returners are ace Riley Lamb, who is headed to USC, Long Beach State commit shortstop Tanner Carlson, son of the coach, and slugging first baseman George Spithorst, a junior.

“It’s very, very, very hard to do what Elk Grove has done, and Carly is a great coach with a great program,” Anderson said. “It hurts me now because he’s wiped out the great Cordova image. No, really, it’s amazing what he’s done. It’s absolutely a great dynasty, and Carly has done it right: play tough teams, coach your kids with passion.

“People may say they have great players, and they do, but you have to have a good jockey, too. Can’t just have a stallion horse without the right jockey to handle things.”

Carlson is more bouncer burly than jockey diminutive, and he took the compliment in stride. A baseball and football star at Christian Brothers in the 1980s, Carlson admired the Cordova machine and still uses some of those ingredients.

“Competing against Cordova and Coach Anderson with his fire, it taught me a lot,” said Carlson, who was also influenced by his late father, Jim, and his Christian Brothers coach, the late Ron Limeberger. “I owe a lot to Guy, being mesmerized by him and his coaching and passion and success. It was something to look up to. That’s the kind of coach I wanted to be. To hear his compliments, very humbled. You don’t think about it, all the years together, the success, trying to move guys on, but you appreciate it.”

Carlson grew to appreciate the journey. He reached his first section final as coach in 2002, losing in three games to Merced. He took the loss hard.

“First thing I said was, ‘We were lucky to get to a final because it’s so hard to do,’ and, ‘Man, will I ever get this opportunity again?’ ” Carlson said. “Fortunately, we were able to get back a few times. I’m very thankful. I have a great coaching staff, guys who put in the time, and the kids buy in. They work hard. Without all of them, we’re nothing.”

Elk Grove players said they enter the program expecting success. Said Lamb, who is 2-0 in the playoffs, “Winning in the playoffs, it’s what Elk Grove is all about.”

The spotlight can be intense when you’re the coach’s son. Dylan Carlson faced that admirably for four seasons, emerging as The Bee’s Player of the Year last season and as a first-round draft pick and signee with the St. Louis Cardinals. Now it’s Tanner’s turn. A junior, Carlson waves off taunts from opposing dugouts that he’s only in the lineup because his father fills out the card.

“I just play,” Tanner said.

Said the coach/father, “There’s always pressure when you’re the coach’s son. Pressure of having a brother who was a first-round pick. Pressure of this season. There’s a lot of pressure in all of that, but he’s handled it really well. He’s fought through a leg issue, a slow start, and he’s stepped up. It’s made him a better player, a better person, and I’m very proud of him. Proud of all of them.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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