After years of success, Bearcats find wins harder to come by in 2002

Of the 10 men’s sports at Willamette University, baseball has been the most consistent winner over the past two decades.

The last 11 of those seasons have come under head coach David Wong, whose teams have never finished below third place in the Northwest Conference and won NWC titles in 1998 and 2001.

But that winning trend came to an end in 2002. Wong, who just finished his 12th season, is hoping the 13-21 overall record is just a bump in the road.

The Bearcats came into the season with high hopes. Why not? The returnees saw nothing but success in the Cardinal and Old Gold uniforms. But a lack of pitching, timely hitting and crucial errors on defense caused WU to tumble below .500 and into a sixth-place finish (9-15) in the NWC.

For the first time since 1983, the Bearcats weren’t in the NWC title hunt.

When Willamette won the conference title in 2001, the Bearcats had a team ERA of 4.92 (third), a batting average of .323 (second) and a fielding percentage of .944. This past spring, WU had a 7.34 ERA (seventh), a .301 average (fifth) and a .938 fielding percentage.

On the positive side, several players had solid seasons. Junior center fielder Drew Ecklund came off a leg injury in football to lead the team in RBIs with 32 and hit .304. He was the only player to start all 34 games and struck out just nine times.

Catcher Jason Searle, a student in Willamette’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, hit .360 with seven home runs despite missing eight mid-season games with a hamstring injury.

Sophomore Aaron House, who had just 10 at-bats as a freshman, took over the starting role at shortstop. Despite hitting just .237, he knocked in 17 runs. Wong said House “had as many big hits for us as anyone on the team.”

Wong added that as the season wore on, the Bearcats became a better defensive unit.
Other highlights of the season:

• Senior Matt Benjamin’s nine home runs - the most by a Bearcat since Tony Barron hit a school-record 13 homers in 1987.

• Sophomore Andrew Bartels - who played third, first and designated hitter - hit .373 on the year with six home runs.

• Outfielders Matt Drahn (sophomore) and Ryan Hughes (junior) hit .347 and .339,

• Senior second baseman Danny Aguilar, the team’s shortstop in 2001, battled a shoulder injury but still hit .324.

• Senior pitcher Justin Brown (5-6, 4.30 ERA) had a solid season, finishing his career with a complete-game victory over Whitworth.

Searle was the only Bearcat to make the NWC first-team all-star unit, but four of his teammates earned honorable mention: Ecklund, Brown, Bartels and freshman starting pitcher Jeff Jensen (4-3, 6.22 ERA).