WALLA WALLA, Wash. – With any luck at all, the youth movement with the Whitman College baseball program should start paying dividends this spring. Fifth-year head coach Casey Powell has added nine freshmen to his roster for a second consecutive year, boosting his roster size to 26 players.
"This is the largest group I’ve had in my time here," Powell says. "I feel a lot better about our roster this season. We’ve got a good young nucleus to build around. It’s really encouraging."
Whitman struggled with its growing pains a year ago, winning just three games. But the young Missionaries showed potential throughout the season, losing five games by three or fewer runs, and suffering six other defeats by six runs or less.
"We’ve got good groups in both our freshman and sophomore classes," Powell says. "A lot of those guys will play a lot this spring. Mike Minckler, one of our sophomores, saw more at-bats last spring than any other freshman in the conference. The same will be true this season. We’ll have freshmen playing a significant amount of time on the pitching mound and in the field."
In a nutshell, Whitman’s youth is not the negative it was a year ago. "I had a lot of nervous feelings last spring with how young we were," he says. "This season I’m a lot more excited about how young we are. We’re putting a good foundation into place."
With pitching always a key in baseball, two lefties figure to anchor the Missionary staff this season. Pat Johnston, a 6-foot-2 senior, is back for his fourth season as a starter, and 6-foot-3 sophomore Pete Stadmeyer hopes to build on a promising freshman campaign.
"Pat is our No. 1 starter," Powell says. "He probably led the staff in starts and innings pitched as both a sophomore and junior. It’s unfortunate that his record doesn’t show just how well he has pitched at times. He’s also continued to get stronger and make improvements. We’ve worked with his mechanics a little more this year to lower his number of walks and keep him ahead in the count."
Stadmeyer was slowed last spring by arm troubles, which have continued to linger. "It’ll be huge for us if Pete can stay healthy all season," Powell says. "His arm is still bothering him a little bit, but he’s got one of the better change-ups that I’ve seen here. If he’s healthy, he has the stuff to dominate in this league. He’s got good velocity and his change-up is a great pitch. He can also throw his curveball for a strike at any time."
Whitman kicks off its season later this week with four games in Arizona. "The other potential starting pitchers for this week are two freshmen, Joe Rodhouse and Jason Sease," Powell says.
Rodhouse, who comes to Whitman from O’Connor High School in Phoenix, Ariz., showed consistency and a good mound presence during fall workouts. "Joe does a good job holding runners out of the stretch, and he can throw a number of pitches from a number of arm slots," Powell says. "Joe also could play a little in the infield, but we’ll probably use him primarily as a starting pitcher."
Sease, who played his prep ball at Tahoma (Wash.) High School, worked his way up the depth chart over the winter months. "Jason will either be a starter or long reliever for us," Powell says. "He’s thrown well in our scrimmages, and he can throw all of his pitches for strikes. He’s still learning a few things, but he’s done a good job recently."
Sean Day, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Seattle’s Ballard High School, is the early season candidate to fill the closer’s role in the bullpen. "Sean can throw a number of pitches for strikes," Powell says. "He pitched in high school and filled a utility role in the field. It’s good to have his versatility. He could play some infield for us, if we need him there, and he might see some time at designated hitter. He does a good job swinging the bat and has some pop."
Calvin Davis, a sophomore, will be "our best left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen," Powell says. "He came into some tight spots for us last season and got the job done."
Two right-handers with good size will also work out of the bullpen. Trygve Madsen, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, has made significant improvements over the past year, Powell says. "We’ve worked with his mechanics and tried to add a few pitches to his arsenal. He’s made a good effort to get better."
Sam Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior, throws the "best curveball on the staff when he’s throwing well," Powell says. "If Sam can get more consistent with his pitches, he’s someone who could start for us."
Orion Hughes-Knowles, a freshman from Sitka, Alaska, also starts the season in the bullpen. "I don’t how big baseball is in Alaska, or how much coaching he might have had, but Orion is learning and picking up things," Powell says. "He keeps improving as we go."
Ranger Sciacca, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who flashed plenty of potential last season, starts the season on the injured list. "Ranger threw a great game against Corban early in the year and then hurt his back the next week," Powell says. "He had back surgery in the offseason, and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to start throwing again. If we can get him back healthy and throwing like he did to start last season, he’d be another guy who could start for us."
Powell has three athletes, all with the first name of Mike or Michael, pegged to catch his pitching staff.
Mike Rathwell, a junior, played a "lot of infield for us last year, including some third base," Powell says. "We’re moving him back to catcher this season, which is a good thing. Having Mike behind plate is like having a second pitching coach. He sees and understands the mechanics of pitching. At the plate, Mike is a good contact hitter who can also bunt and move the runners over."
Rathwell and Mike Minckler, a sophomore, will see a "majority of the innings at catcher," Powell says. "Mike (Minckler) might be a little better defensively, and he’s one of our best power guys at the plate. When he’s not catching, we can use him at designated hitter."
Powell also is impressed with Mike Lazcano, one of his freshman, behind the plate. "Mike has made a lot of improvements since the fall and is starting to get a grasp of what we want behind the plate," Powell says. "His arm is just as strong as our other two catchers, and he’s got a good future here. In terms of speed on the basepaths, he might be the fastest of the three."
Adam Knappe, a junior shortstop, is back to anchor the infield after a solid sophomore season. "Adam surprised us a little bit last year in terms of how well he played, both defensively and offensively," Powell says. "We’ll probably hit him at the top of line-up again. His foot speed is just average, but his on-base percentage and his understanding of how to get on base is what makes him valuable. In the field, his arm strength has gotten a lot better, which will help him make the tougher throws across the diamond. He’s also gotten a lot stronger mentally. He doesn’t let the little things bother him, and he’s taken more of a leadership role as our veteran infielder."
Sophomores Derek Clovis and Matt Morris-Rosenfeld are the returning veterans Powell plans to use at first base. "We’re moving Derek from catcher to first base, and he probably has the edge at this point when it comes to hitting. He hit the ball well for us at times last season."
Thomas Kost, a senior who did not play last season, will serve as a "roving infielder who might see some time at first against left-handed pitchers, since both Derek and Matt hit from the left side," Powell says.
"Thomas was our bullpen ace as a freshman and sophomore, but he didn’t play last year because of arm problems,” Powell says. “Since he wasn’t going to play, he decided to study abroad instead. His arm is still not to the point where he feels comfortable pitching. He can throw his fastball without any problems, but he can’t throw a curveball without significant pain.
"Now that he’s back on campus, Thomas really wants to be part of the team, and he’s a good athlete," Powell adds. "His bat has been better than I anticipated, and he can play a number of positions in the field. It helps us to have him in a utility role. I’d love to have him pitch again, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. He could play third, second and first at any time in the season, and maybe even a little outfield."
Powell plans to start the season with two freshmen at third and second.
Austin Shackelford, a solid 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., is the new Missionary third baseman. "Austin hits from the left side and has a really nice swing," Powell says. "He has some pop with the bat, and he can makes the throws defensively from third. He comes to us from a good high school program in Arizona that just won a state championship, and he played a significant role in those playoffs. We’re very happy to have Austin here. He’s going to be a great player for us in the next few years."
With junior Chad Frisk nursing a sore throwing shoulder, freshman and Walla Walla native Micah Babbitt gets the nod at second base. "Micah is going to do just fine," Powell says. "He’s not necessarily flashy in any one aspect of the game, but he’s solid defensively and he understands hitting. He knows what to do with different pitches and where to hit the ball in certain situations. He’s just a good overall player. As he develops at this level, Micah is going to be a very good player. He plays the game the right way; he’s going hard on every play. It’s a great attitude to have on the team."
One of Powell’s big hopes for the season is that he’s able to pencil senior right fielder Drew Pearsall into the line-up on a regular basis. "I’d love for Drew to have a healthy season, which he hasn’t had since he was freshman when he was an all-conference utility player," Powell says. "He’s been having some hamstring problems recently, and he’s coming off back surgery and a medical redshirt year."
Powell sees a handful of players competing for time in other outfield spots. "We’ve got some serious depth in the outfield this year."
Junior Luke Marshall and sophomores Dan White and John Nelson are three of the outfield candidates. "Dan has shown a lot of improvement over the past year, and Luke is looking good right now," Powell says. "John showed a lot of potential late last season in terms of tracking the ball and running it down."
Calvin Davis, Powell’s left-handed specialist in the bullpen, is another outfield option. Others in the outfield picture are freshmen Brian Kitamura (Mercer Island, Wash.) and Mitch Hanoosh (West Newbury, Mass.). "Brian is one of our fastest outfielders, and Mitch has made good improvements since the fall. He also has good speed."
At this week’s Arizona Desert Classic, the Missionaries will play four of their NCAA Div. III counterparts for California – Whittier, La Verne, Redlands and Cal Lutheran. Whitman then plays its first home games on Sunday, Feb. 25, when it hosts NCAA Div. II Central Washington at Borleske Stadium. The twinbill starts at noon.
The Missionaries dive into NWC play when its hosts Lewis & Clark in a three-game set on the weekend of March 3-4. "Lewis & Clark surprised everyone with how well they did last year, after having had a very young team two years that didn’t win very many games," Powell says. "We’re telling our kids to follow Lewis & Clark’s example. They showed last season how a bunch of young players can make a major step forward in one year."
Winning games in the NWC is never an easy proposition, however, Powell says. "It seems like the conference gets stronger every year.
The NWC coaches poll recently picked George Fox to defend its title. "With their line-up I can understand why," Powell says. "One through nine, they have guys who can hurt you at the plate if you throw mistakes. Pitching-wise, they won’t be quite as strong as last year, but they always have guys who throw strikes and get outs."
"Pacific Lutheran may have the best pitching staff in the conference," Powell says. "Linfield’s pitching will be younger than what they’ve had recently, but they’ve got good athletes in the field. Pacific lost a lot of guys, but they’ve also brought in a good group of new players. Whitworth brought in a ton of community college transfers that will help them right away.
"Puget Sound also surprised a lot of people last year, and I think it has a majority of those kids back," Powell continues. "Willamette has one of the best power hitters in the league at first base, and he’s only a sophomore. They also have most of their pitching staff back."
"We’re ready to go," Powell says. "Our talent is better, and we’re in a position to win more games."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information,
(509) 527-5902; firstname.lastname@example.org