Bearcat Baseball Begins Play This Weekend Against Occidental; Coaches and Teams Optimistic Despite Being Picked for 6th in NWC Coaches Poll

SPEC KEENE STADIUM — There is a different personality on this year’s Willamette Baseball team… one full of energy and desire.

With only 4 seniors, the young Bearcats realize they have the opportunity to create something special this season.
With a core of solid returning veterans and a large and talented freshman class, the Bearcats look to surprise some teams this season.

Coming off a 20-18 campaign in 2005, the Bearcats must replace 70% of the innings pitched last season. Catcher Ken Halpin, the team’s only All-Conference player last season, also graduated, as did starting first baseman John Cox and outfielder Brian Gilmore.

However, the team has reloaded at every position with a talented freshman class, as well as steady back-ups from last year’s squad.

In the field the Bearcats will start one senior, four juniors, and three sophomores. On the mound, the pitching staff will need to gain valuable experience in the teams first two weekends in order to be ready for Northwest Conference play.

The squad has worked extremely hard in January practice and Coach Allison believes this is the most prepared team he’s had since coming to Willamette.

The Bearcats were picked to finish 6th in the recent Northwest Conference Coaches Poll, with perennial powerhouse George Fox picked to finish first for the fourth straight season. Linfield and PLU are also expected to contend for the NWC title.

Whitworth, Willamette and Pacific are all within six points of each other for the next three spots. The University of Puget Sound was sixth in the poll with 34 points, followed by Whitman College (14) and Lewis & Clark College (13).

Coach Matt Allison is back for his third year to lead the Bearcats. He’ll be joined by new pitching coach Aaron Swick. Colin Griffin is back for his second season as assistant coach following a successful career as a Bearcat shortstop. Gib Gilmore, a Bearcat Hall of Famer, will also continue duties as an assistant coach.

Position-by-Position Breakdown:

Pitching Staff:

The Bearcat pitching staff lost valuable innings from last year’s graduating seniors. Jeff Jensen, Zach VandeGriend, Jeff Ross, and Chris Murrell accounted for 29 of the teams 38 starts in 2005. Despite losing their top two pitchers, the coaches are very pleased with the progress many of the younger pitchers have made.

Senior Adam Beebe, junior Drew Herbert, sophomores Tye Sundlee, Clint Moran, and Steve Johnson are all in the mix to be in the weekend rotation this season. There are several other pitchers that will contribute valuable innings out of the bullpen. Returnees include seniors Anton Chiono and Nic Nottingham, juniors Casey Hedrick and Grant Yamaguchi, and sophomores Matt Bicocca and Ryan Smith. The incoming freshmen that will contribute include Kelsey Nakata, Jarrid Summers, Tim Mitchell, Jimmy Meuel, Morgan Kuschel, and Scott Coleman.

Catcher:

Without all-Conference catcher Ken Halpin, the Bearcats will rely on a couple of young players to fill this critical role. Coaches are looking to sophomore Lee Eklund and freshman Dan Maslanik as the right guys to step in and produce for the Bearcats behind the plate this season. Eklund has proven during early practice that he can manage a young pitching staff.

Infield:

The Bearcats lost one only starting infielder from the 2005 squad. First baseman John Cox led the team in home runs, but graduated last spring. There are four candidates vying for the starting spot at first base. Juniors Grant Yamaguchi and Ty Eriksen along with freshmen Kyle Stalker and Kirk Struble are all battling for time at first base.

Matt Johnson, the team’s leader in 2005 in batting average, slugging percentage, and hits, returns as the starting second baseman for the Bearcats. He will be pushed by junior Ryan Peterson and freshman Ellis Webster.

There are three very good candidates at shortstop. Team leader, junior Matt Rasmussen will start and be the catalyst of the defense. Sophomore Kiel Wood and freshman Jack McGee will also contend for time.

Sophomore Steve Johnson was voted by his teammates as the best defensive player on the 2005 squad. He will return to start at third base along with freshman David Tufo.

Outfield:

The Bearcats lost left fielder Brian Gilmore to graduation. However, they return sophomore center fielder Sean Anderson and junior right fielder Kelly Gilmore.

Starting in left field will be junior Adam Holden. Anderson led the 2005 team in runs scored and was spark plug at the top of the line-up. Also in contention for time in the outfield are junior Colin Young and freshmen Colin Clark, Jordan Roberts, and Grayson Pitcher.