The Walla Walla Community College baseball team is prepping for March 25.
After a four-week nonconference slate featuring 16 games, WWCC opens its Northwest Athletic Conference league schedule with a home doubleheader against Treasure Valley.
“This is probably one of the toughest preseason schedules we’ve had,” Warrior coach Dave Meliah said. “It’s going to take everybody pulling together. You want to win every game you play, obviously, and we approach it that way. But the emphasis is definitely on the league schedule.”
The Warriors, who finished second to Treasure Valley in the NWAC East Region with a 27-14 overall record and 17-11 mark in league play, look a lot different this year.
WWCC graduated a handful of talented sophomores, including East Region first teamers Jarod Gonzales, JJ Robinson and Jesse Houser. Walla Walla sent 10 players from last year’s team onto four-year institutions.
“Obviously we had a lot of sophomores last year that contributed a lot of innings on the mound and a lot of at-bats,” Meliah said. “It’s going to be interesting. We have enough returners. It’s not like we don’t have any guys back that didn’t play at all last year.”
The Warriors welcome back nine sophomores and four redshirt freshmen this year.
Clayten Ayres leads the group, as he was a second-team East Region infielder after batting .317 with nine doubles and 20 RBI last season. Ayres will bolster the Warriors’ pitching rotation this time around after throwing just 12 2-3 innings last year.
“We didn’t have a chance to use him on the mound,” Meliah said. “He played a lot of first. We didn’t have another first baseman where we could put him on the mound a bunch. He’s been throwing well all year, all fall into this early spring.”
Fellow sophomore Levi Rudolph, who appeared out of the bullpen mostly, returns this year, but is dealing with an eye issue that will limit his work in the early going.
“He’s a pretty reliable arm,” Meliah said. “He’s a guy that can mix in some breaking balls for strikes and keep guys off balance.”
The Warriors open the non-conference slate with a pair of games against Prairie Baseball Academy on both Saturday and Sunday. After Ayres, Meliah anticipates a trio of young guns filling out the starting rotation for the weekend’s games.
Cam Walker, a 6-foot-5 freshman out of Naches, will start Saturday’s second game. Fellow freshmen Jake Simmons and Griffin Davis will get the call Sunday.
“That’s really where we don’t have much experience is on the mound,” Meliah said.
As for the position players, Meliah projects three sophomores to start in the outfield. Chandler Whitney, who played the most of the three last season, brings a left-handed bat to the middle of the batting order, Meliah said.
“Chandler has a chance to be one of the top three or four hitters in the league this year,” Meliah said. “He has looked really impressive so far in practices and scrimmages.”
Austin Kopacz, who batted .429 in 21 at-bats a season ago, also returns after sitting behind second-team outfielder Trevor Jones last year.
“Austin was in one of those tough situations where he was behind some pretty good sophomores, so he didn’t get a ton of at-bats,” Meliah said. “But when he did, he was successful.”
Michael Kilpatrick rounds out the outfield after spending the last two seasons on his Mormon mission. In 2012, Kilpatrick batted .290 in 43 games for the Warriors.
“He’s a little older,” Meliah said. “They call him Grandpa. He’s just kind of picked up right where he left off. He brings some of that life experience with him. He’s been out on his own in the real world.”
Around the infield, Cody Price returns after batting .301 in 103 at-bats last season. Price, who can slot in at both second base and short, is questionable to play this weekend with an elbow issue, Meliah said.
Redshirt freshman Travis Haen, who graduated from DeSales, also slots into the middle of the infield with a strong glove defensively.
“He’s a guy who’s been around our program and knows what our expectations are,” Meliah said. “He’s going to contribute quite a bit there in the middle of the infield. He’s a sure-handed defensive guy.”
Ayres, when he’s not on the bump, will get run at both first and third base.
Sophomore Jarod Paul, a left-handed hitting first baseman, rounds out the infield.
“He’ll be in the middle of our lineup when he’s in there,” Meliah said of Paul. “He’s a big kid, has some power (with) potential to drive the ball around the yard.”
Behind the dish, sophomore Dane Crater opens as the starter after backing up second-team East Region catcher Jake Browne last year.
Crater battled .298 in 15 games last season with four doubles and 10 RBI.
“He provides a lot of leadership back there,” Meliah said. “He keeps the pitchers in their place.”
On paper, the Warriors don’t look to have the same punch offensively. Meliah downplays the difference, however, as he said this year’s team offers different advantages.
“In our preseason scrimmages, offensively we’ve had some days where we’ve looked no different than last year’s team,” Meliah said. “We’ve also had some days where we looked like a bunch of young hitters that didn’t know what we were doing.
“We definitely have the potential to be a good offensive club,” he added. “We have a lot more speed this year than we have the last few years. We’ll be able to put some pressure on the defense and maybe steal a few more bases.”
Despite having a young rotation, Meliah is counting on more depth from his pitching staff.
The Warriors relied heavily on Houser a year ago, but Meliah is confident he has eight to nine guys that can give him innings.
“We didn’t have that last year,” Meliah said. “That’s exciting. Again we’ll have to see where it goes. Things change pretty drastically from the first weekend to the middle of league.”
After finishing a win shy of the NWAC Championship Tournament last season, Meliah said the Warriors must be ready to play their best ball down the stretch.
“You’re playing the best teams and you got to play your best,” Meliah said. “We didn’t play our best the last two games of regionals. If we would have won our last game, we would of still made it to the NWAC tournament. That’s kind of the hump we’re trying to overcome. Three out of four years, we’ve been one win away to getting to the championship tournament.”
Article by Alex Fields of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin