With the return of its entire pitching staff and the vast majority of its lineup from a national championship ballclub, expectations are predictably high for the Linfield Wildcats, picked as Northwest Conference favorites and also as the preseason No. 1 team in NCAA Division III.
But although familiarity and personnel can be important indicators of future success, the Wildcats know it takes more than talent to advance in the postseason. And to this point, seventh-year head coach Scott Brosius has been impressed with the hard work, leadership and focus demonstrated from his senior-laden ballclub.
“I don’t think anybody on this team assumes that last year’s success is just going to carry over,” Brosius said. “We have the advantage of being a team that’s been there and done it, so we understand and have confidence that we can do it. But we also have to understand that there’s a target on our back now and we have to embrace that.”
Linfield’s title defense begins on the mound, where the Wildcats return all three starters, including National Pitcher of the Year Chris Haddeland, All-West Region performer Aaron Thomassen and three-year starter Zach Brandon. The talented trio combined for 35 of Linfield’s 42 victories and a 2.11 ERA in 2013, helping the ‘Cats win every weekend in Northwest Conference action and 10 of 12 playoff games en route to the national title.
Justin Huckins (seven saves, 2.11 ERA) is the team’s top returning closer, but needs to battle through some early-season injury issues. Until he returns, and even after he does, relief responsibilities are to be shared by a deep and seasoned bullpen. Fifth-year senior Zach Manley is healthy and ahead of schedule after undergoing elbow surgery, senior Garett Speyer has plethora of big, late-inning game experience and junior Joseph Stevick should play a bigger role on staff after making some key playoff contributions.
Other key pitchers include Cody Walker and Garrett Miller, with Joe Perryman and converted outfielders Justin Davis and Kyle Billeci also posing big threats from the mound in relief roles.
“If we stay healthy, this year’s staff has the potential to be every bit as good if not better than last year’s staff,” Brosius said.
Comprising the other half of the battery are catchers Jake Wylie and Chance Laboda. Wylie is expected to take the majority of the starts, but can translate his defensive skills to the outfield, leaving home plate defensive responsibilities to Laboda, fully recovered from arm surgery that cost him the second half of his sophomore season.
Linfield brings back exactly half of its infield starters – Clayton Truex at first base and Corey VanDomelen at shortstop – and replaces the other two holes with versatile defensive standouts Eric Lawson and Kenny Johnson. While Lawson transitions from a utility role to third base, former shortstop Johnson slides over to second, giving Linfield two dynamic defenders to secure the middle of the infield.
Second-year player Kekoa Kaulukukui can back up any of the infield positions.
Linfield’s outfield is on lockdown with the return of Nate McClellan, Kramer Lindell, and Nick Fisher. Including Wylie, the Wildcats therefore boast three first team all-conference outfielders. Jackson Ruckert (junior) and Finn McMichael (sophomore) can run and defend extremely well in reserve roles.
“We’re pretty spoiled,” Brosius said of his outfield contingent. “We feel really good about the depth.”
Offensively, the Wildcat lineup features four players who hit .300 or better in 2013 (Wylie, Lindell, Fisher and Truex) but Linfield must replace catalyst Tim Wilson, a career .421 hitter.
“That’s going to be the biggest role for us to fill in the top of the order,” Brosius said. To do that, the ‘Cats turn to VanDomelen, who registered a .408 on-base percentage and stole 12 bags last season in the two hole. “He does a real good job of getting on base, and plays with the same type of energy (as Wilson).”
Linfield’s outfield supplied much of the offense last season, and should continue to set the tone for the rest of the Wildcats, slots one through nine.
“With a lot of returners from the lineup last year, we feel offensively we should be pretty strong, and have that same balance of some power in the lineup as well as some speed to be able to scratch and claw for runs.”
Linfield hosts the regional tournament whether or not it claims a second consecutive league title, and the Wildcats certainly prefer playing to watching in late May. To earn that coveted playoff bid, however, is as daunting a task as ever in the increasingly competitive Northwest Conference and West Region.
“When you’re in the West you understand what it is: it’s a difficult climb to get through,” Brosius said. “The real key is the teams that are able to play consistent baseball week in and week out.”
The Wildcats’ greatest asset in its quest for consistency stems from its experienced roster, which counts co-captains Wylie and Fisher among its 10 seniors.
“We certainly don’t take anything for granted, but I like that we have that kind of experience returning,” Brosius said. “I like guys that have already tasted what winning is and what success is, and know what it takes.”