Linfield can count experience, depth at the battery positions and the ability to focus on playing one game at a time among its many strengths entering the 2015 baseball season.
With a roster featuring 11 seniors – including seven on the pitching staff – the Wildcats look to extend their run of consecutive Northwest Conference championships and NCAA Finals appearances. Two years removed from a national title, picked to capture a third consecutive league crown and entering the year ranked fourth in the national poll, expectations are high for Linfield to make amends for a quick exit from the national tournament a season ago.
“We have a lot guys who, over the last two years, have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” said head coach Scott Brosius. “We don’t dwell on last season, that’s baseball, but I can feel it. It serves as a driving force among some of the players. They want to get back to Finals and stay there a little bit longer.”
Though the ‘Cats boast significant experience, Linfield has big holes to fill offensively after graduating four players that hit at .300 or better and drove in 140 runs in their final seasons. But with the two remaining fundamental components of a championship caliber team – pitching and defense – intact, the Wildcats stand a good chance to repeat.
All-Americans Chris Haddeland and Aaron Thomassen remain entrenched as No. 1 and No. 2 in the starting pitching rotation, with veteran junior right-hander Justin Davis and lanky sophomore Riley Newman expected to battle it out in the preseason for the third starting role.
Experienced veterans Garrett Miller, Cody Walker and Joseph Stevick are expected to provide key relief innings, with additional support from fourth-year seniors Kyle Billeci and Spencer Metzsch. Newcomers Harrison Reece, an all-state right-hander from Lake Oswego, and Callahan Neely, a Washington transplant with one of the hardest throwing arms in the program, should push all returners for time on the mound.
Catching is another one of Linfield’s deepest positions, with former all-state rookies Brady Rediger and Jake Gellos joining Ryan Pladson and Jimmy Landefeld in a competition for the back-up role to incumbent starter Chance Laboda.
“It’s a neat blend,” Brosius said. “We have a lot of experience and leadership, but we also have some exciting competition among the younger players, the freshmen and sophomores that will pushing for a lot of playing time.”
Co-captains Corey VanDomelen and Eric Lawson return in starting roles at shortstop and third base, providing leadership for an infield that replaces its entire right side. Ben Andrews moves from a reserve role at third base to a starting spot at first, while Kekoa Kaulukukui and David Mason are locked a competitive battle at second base. Scott Schepige and Landefeld can both provide solid back-up support at first.
Jo Carroll is the lone returner in the outfield, which lost three all-conference performers and two All-Americans to graduation. Finn McMichael and Scott Hilpert have the early edge in left and center, with senior Jackson Ruckert and Schepige poised to step into starting or reserve roles.
“Defensively we’ll be very good. Our defense in the infield and outfield will be above average,” Brosius said. “The question marks right now surround how the lineup comes together. We basically graduated the middle of the order. Those are the roles in which some of our younger players are going to need to step up.”
VanDomelen, Lawson and Carroll – who combined for a .285 average and 68 RBI last season – form the foundation of the lineup. McMichael and Hilpert have the necessary speed to get on a base and into scoring positions at or near the top of the order. Behind them, players like Andrews, Schepige and Laboda fill out the middle of the lineup with the ability to drive in runs.
The buzz around the league is the inaugural conference tournament, in which the top four regular-season finishers battle for the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs. Though conceding a looming three-day tournament adds an element to late-season decision-making regarding health, Brosius maintained the new format does not affect how Linfield goes about its business.
“There’s been great focus in terms of how we prepare,” Brosius said. “They work really hard, there’s a lot of focus and they pull for each other and help each other out. We’re going to need some of that because we do have some younger players assuming greater roles.
“Our mentality is that every game you’re playing is the most important of the year, and your goal is to win every game you play. We’re not looking at the conference tournament as a safety net. Our goal is to compete at the highest level every game and every series we play.”