WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Strong defense, timely hitting and just enough pitching. Those are the ingredients first-year coach Casey Powell hopes to mix into a successful season this spring at Whitman College.
The Missionaries make their debut next week with a series of five games at the D-III Desert Classic in Chandler, Ariz. The first game is set for Thursday, Feb. 13, against Eastern Oregon University.
Powell, 27, an assistant coach at the Northwest Conference rival Linfield the past four seasons, inherits a Whitman program that lost nine seniors to graduation last spring. Those losses included three of the squad's top four starting pitchers as well as its top reliever.
"Whitman lost a lot to graduation, but we also return some strong senior leaders this spring," Powell says. "With Blake Fisher at shortstop and Danny Richards at second base, our senior leadership in the infield is excellent."
Richards (Bend, Ore. / Bend HS) was one of seven Missionaries to earn All-NWC honorable mention last season. He hit a solid .295 on the season, although his batting average in conference games was a more spectacular .341.
Fisher's hopes to bounce back at the plate, after seeing his batting average dip to .253 last spring. Two years ago as a sophomore, Fisher (Seattle, Wash. / Blanchet HS) hit .304 and earned NWC honorable mention recognition. He also hit .310 as a freshman.
Senior leaders on the pitching staff are lefty Ryan Nelson (Kirkland, Wash. / Juanita HS) and righty Jake Jensen (Portland, Ore. / Central Catholic HS). Nelson was the most active of the two last season, throwing a total of 52 innings, mostly as a starter.
"Ryan and Jake have taken charge of the younger pitchers," Powell says. "It helps to have the two veterans showing the younger guys how it's done. It makes a big difference."
Steve Johnson (Seattle, Wash. / Lakeside School), a sophomore right-hander, is the only hurler on the staff with collegiate pitching experience. "Steve has shown good command in the early workouts," Powell says.
The pitching corps was bolstered at the semester break when sophomore Pat Thomas, a 6-foot-2 right-hander, transferred to Whitman from Gonzaga University. Thomas, who played his high school ball at St. George's in Spokane, is a freshman in terms of his athletic eligibility. "Pat has a good, strong arm," Powell says. "He can throw a lot of different pitches for strikes."
The pitching staff will get another shot in the arm when junior Casey Nelson (Gresham, Ore. / Ketchikan, Alaska, HS) completes his varsity basketball season. Nelson, a 6-foot-5, 260-pounder, transferred to Whitman last fall from Mt. Hood Community College in the Portland, Ore., area. "With his size, Nelson should give us a very imposing presence on the mound," Powell notes.
The three freshman pitchers on the staff are Matt Jungmann, Adam Dobrin (Del Mar, Calif. / La Jolla Country Day School) and Adam Maldonado (San Francisco, Calif. / Lick Wilmerding HS). Jungmann, a key player at Walla Walla High School in recent years, figures to make the most immediate impact, Powell says. "Matt knows how to pitch, and when he's not throwing, he gives us another solid catcher behind the plate."
Spencer Fox (Seattle, Wash. / Blanchet HS) and Andrew Shultz (Bellevue, Wash. / Blanchet HS), a pair of sophomores who normally catch and play the outfield, respectively, may also be pressed into some pitching duties, Powell adds.
"We don't necessarily need a bunch of dominating pitchers. With our defense, our pitchers shouldn't have to worry about striking out a lot of hitters. We want them to throw the ball over the plate and make the other team put the ball in play. We think we have a defense that can make the plays."
Powell, a second baseman during his own collegiate playing days, sees Fisher and Richards as the keystones of a strong defensive infield. "I'm very encouraged by the quality of young infielders. We've got young guys who have good defensive skills and strong arms."
Powell expects to use a platoon of freshman Drew Pearsall (Phoenix, Ariz. / Brophy College Prep) and sophomore Geoff Bergreen (Portland, Ore. / Westview HS). "Drew fields the ball well and has a strong arm. There aren't too many 18-year-olds who can throw the ball across the infield any better than Drew."
Normally a middle infielder, freshman J.D. Fischer (Boise, Idaho / Capital HS) may see time this season at first base. Jordan Takaki (Honolulu, Hawaii / Punahou HS), a sophomore playing his first collegiate season, is another possibility at first, although his best defensive position might be the outfield, Powell says.
"The first base spot is wide open," Powell says. "For now, it might come down to who's hitting the ball well."
Brandon Nickerson (Port Orchard, Wash. / South Kitsap HS) is another of the freshmen who should see time in the infield.
Sean Kinney (Kenmore, Wash. / Blanchet HS), a sophomore, returns to anchor the Missionary outfield after a strong freshman campaign. Hitting lead-off and playing in left, Kinney hit .331 in 37 games, leading the squad in hits with 47 and runs scored with 35. He whacked nine doubles, collected 22 walks and stole 10 bases in 11 attempts. He capped his season with NWC honorable mention recognition.
"Sean has good speed and gets a good jump on the ball," Powell says. "He hits well at the top of the order, and he knows what to do when he gets on base."
Ryan Nelson, who played in the outfield last season when not pitching, clubbed seven home runs and drove home 29 runs. Shultz and Takaki are two more outfield possibilities who combine good size with a good swing at the plate, Powell says.
Other Missionaries roaming the outfield for playing time are senior Jon Keefer (Albany, Ore. / South Albany HS) and freshmen Cole Smead (Shoreline, Wash. / Cactus Shadow HS-Cave Creek, Ariz.) and Oliver Stiefel (Portland, Ore. / Lincoln HS). "Cole makes good contact at the plate and shows good promise in the outfield," Powell says.
In terms of offense, this year's Missionaries won't specialize in the long ball, Powell says. "We might not have a lot of power, so we may have to play it station to station. We'll need to bunt and play hit-and-run. We'll need to execute if we want to win games."
Weather permitting, Whitman will play its first home games when it hosts the Kight Invitational on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 22-23. The Missionaries also are slated to open their NWC schedule at home, playing Lewis & Clark College on Saturday and Sunday, March 8-9.
A year ago, Whitman posted records of 12-25 overall and 8-14 in the NWC. Ten of those losses, including six in conference play, came by either one or two runs.