Bearcats are Seventh in NWC Baseball Preseason Poll, but Tight Race is Expected

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University baseball team is picked to finish seventh in the Northwest Conference this spring, according to votes by the league's head coaches in the 2012 NWC Baseball Preseason Poll. In most cases being picked to finish seventh in a preseason poll means your team is expected to struggle. In this case, however, it says more about the strength of the conference than about weaknesses for the Bearcats.

Last year, Linfield College won the NWC title with a 33-11 overall record, including 20-4 in the NWC. The University of Puget Sound, which took second place, was 15-9 in NWC action.

Despite dropping two of three games to Willamette late in the season, Puget Sound managed to hold onto second place, while the Bearcats finished seventh. Willamette was 22-17-1 overall and 12-12 in the nine-team NWC. Willamette lost six one-run games in conference play. Just three games separated second place and seventh place in the standings.

This year, another tight battle is expected between at least seven teams. Linfield may still be a clear favorite, but every other position in the NWC standings appears to be much more uncertain.

As a result, Linfield placed first in the Preseason Poll with 72 points and received eight of nine first place votes. George Fox University (26-13, 14-10 NWC) was second in the poll with 52 points and the remaining first place vote. Pacific Lutheran University (19-20, 13-11 NWC) was listed third with 48 points, while Pacific University (21-16, 14-10 NWC) followed in fourth with 42 points.

Puget Sound (17-17, 15-9 NWC) was fifth with 36 points and Whitworth (20-20, 13-11 NWC) held sixth place. Willamette was seventh with 25 points. Completing the poll were Whitman College (5-30, 4-20 NWC) in eighth and Lewis & Clark College (5-32, 3-21 NWC) in ninth.

Willamette enters the season with eight returning starters, including five players on the infield, two starting pitchers and the designated hitter.

At the top of the list of experienced starters is Mitch Rowan (Sr., OF, Cotati, CA/Rancho Cotate HS), an Honorable Mention Preseason All-America selection by despite missing all but seven games in 2011 due to a hand injury.

Rowan was a First Team Preseason All-America pick last year. He batted .393 in 2011 with four runs and nine RBIs prior to his injury.

In 2010, Rowan was named First Team All-West Region and First Team All-NWC as a designated hitter, after batting .403 with 41 runs, 42 RBIs, 13 doubles and 12 homers. Rowan will play in the outfield this season, where he has a .972 career fielding percentage.

Rowan is one of seven returning players who have earned All-Northwest Conference honors for the Bearcats.

Players on this year's roster who earned All-NWC honors last season are Second Team selections Brandon Chinn (So., 1B, Salem, OR/Sprague HS) and Brandon Simon (Jr., RHP, Los Angeles, CA/Pacific Hills HS), plus Honorable Mention picks Blake Paisley (Sr., RHP, Saratoga, CA/Saratoga HS) and Parker Johnson (Jr., RHP, Carlsbad, CA/La Costa Canyon HS).

Chinn hit .330 on offense and led the Bearcats with 287 putouts on defense. He achieved a .993 fielding percentage. Simon led the Bearcats in victories, as he claimed a 7-3 record on the mount. He also topped WU with 70 innings pitched and 45 strikeouts, while ranking second on the team with a 2.31 earned run average. Paisley was at the top of the pitching chart with a 2.21 ERA on his way to a 5-1 record. Johnson registered a 3-0 record, four saves and a 1.46 ERA as the Bearcats' top relief pitcher.

Players who joined Rowan as All-NWC picks in 2010 are Tyson Giza (Jr., OF, Salem, OR/Sprague HS) and Sky Kelley (Jr., OF, Portland, OR/Jesuit HS). In 2011, Giza hit .333 with 32 runs and 20 RBIs. He was successful on 8 of 10 stolen bases and registered 113 putouts. Two years ago, Kelley batted .374 with 29 runs and 24 RBIs. He hit four homers that season.

Willamette opens its 2011 schedule with a four-game series at Simpson University in Redding, Calif. The Bearcats will take on the Red Hawks in a single game on Friday, Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. (PST), followed by a double-header starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11. The teams will conclude the series with one game on Sunday, Feb. 12, starting at 11 a.m. 

NWC Baseball Preseason Poll (1st place votes in parentheses)
1. Linfield (8), 72 points, 33-11 overall, 20-4 NWC in 2011
2. George Fox (1), 52 points, 26-13, 14-10 NWC
3. Pacific Lutheran, 48 points, 19-20, 13-11 NWC
4. Pacific, 42 points, 21-16, 14-10 NWC
5. Puget Sound, 36 points, 17-17, 15-9 NWC
6. Whitworth, 32 points, 20-20, 13-11 NWC
7. Willamette, 25 points, 22-17-1, 12-12 NWC
8. Whitman, 19 points, 5-30, 4-20 NWC
9. Lewis & Clark, 8 points, 5-32, 3-21 NWC

Note: Points were awarded on an 9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis. Each coach did not vote for his own team.

Junior outfielder Tyson Giza batted .333 in 2011 with 32 runs, 10 doubles and 20 RBIs.

Junior outfielder Tyson Giza batted .333 in 2011 with 32 runs, 10 doubles and 20 RBIs.