Bolstered by strong pitching, Grays Harbor’s Class 2A and 1A teams enter the prep baseball teams with legitimately high expectations.
Aberdeen, Montesano and Hoquiam return their top pitchers from regional-qualifying teams from a year ago. Elma, the least experienced of the quartet, also possesses a solid pitching staff.
Weather permitting, all four of those teams will participate in jamborees today. Hoquiam will host Elma and Cascade Christian in one while Aberdeen takes part in another at Timberline and Montesano will participates in the Black Hills Jamboree.
League play begins next week.
With most of its starters back from last season’s regional participants, Aberdeen (14-10 last year) figures to rank in the upper echelon of the Evergreen 2A Conference this season.
Hopes are lofty enough, in fact, that first-year Bobcat coach Shon Schreiber is attempting to temper that enthusiasm.
“We’re trying not to put pressure on the kids,” said Schreiber, who spent 12 years as the head baseball coach at Grays Harbor College. “We’re trying to slow them down.”
But Schreiber admits that optimism is warranted.
“If the pitchers keep throwing good and the hitters keep hitting, we’ll be tough to beat,” he said, noting that defense is his primary concern.
The Bobcat battery seems particularly strong.
Aberdeen returns its top three pitchers in senior right-handers Reilly Fairchild and Charlie Dietrich and senior southpaw Collin Nord. All three earned second-team all-Evergreen 2A Conference recognition. Fairchild used outstanding control to finish the regular season with an 0.93 earned run average.
Juniors Collin Martin and Austin Kerigan and senior Stuart Ball will also see mound duty.
Durable Ashton Williamson, also an all-Evergreen second teamer, returns behind the plate. Nord will see the bulk of the action at first base, with senior Devin Daniels at second base. Dietrich succeeds all-leaguer Zack Larsen (now at Saint Martin’s University) at shortstop, with junior Chase Johnson at third base. Fairchild will serve as an all-purpose infielder when he’s not on the mound.
Senior center fielder Devan Harke is the lone returning full-time outfield starter. He’ll be flanked by senior Caleb Harris in right and either Ball, senior Kevin Gardner or junior Erikk Machowek in left field.
Although relatively unfamiliar with the Evergreen 2A Conference, Schreiber sees traditional power Chehalis and Capital (dropping down from the 3A classification) as the teams to beat.
He’ll be assisted by Jeremy Wintrip, Jesse Marlow and Ryan Harless.
The reigning Evergreen 1A and district champion, Montesano (18-3 last season) is the consensus league favorite again this year.
The Bulldogs return four all-league performers — pitcher Layne Bruner, catcher Tucker Ibabao, infielder Shad Rogers and outfielder Elliot Mendenhall.
Bruner, a senior left-hander who has already signed with Washington State University, gives the Bulldogs a legitimate pitching ace.
Montesano coach Mike Bruner (Layne’s father) is taking a cautiously optimistic stance.
“We have to put in the work and take the right approach to reach our full potential,” Bruner said. “There are a lot of good teams in our league, but we feel real good about what we have.”
With the Evergreen 1A circuit adopting a triple round-robin format (with each team playing three games apiece — including a doubleheader — against its league foes), Coach Bruner is thankful for his pitching depth. Mendenhall and senior Matt Jensen were also part of Monte’s rotation last year.
Ibabao, who saw almost all of his action behind the plate last year, may pitch and play third base occasionally this year. Sophomore Jordan Bussard will handle the catching chores in those instances.
Layne Bruner will play first base when he isn’t pitching and will be backed up by junior Kenny Roy and senior Nate Nussbabum. Senior Zack Nelson will be at second base. Jensen will divide time between third base and shortstop. Rogers is currently scheduled to play short, but may be shifted to center field on occasion.
In additional to Mendenhall, outfield candidates include seniors Nussbaum, Richard Smith and Drew Helms (a transfer from Elma) and junior Kody Usher.
Like most of his coaching counterparts, Mike Bruner gives high marks to Tenino. He also ranks Rochester, Hoquiam and Elma as potential league contenders.
Bruner’s staff includes Ken Waber, Aaron Cleverly and Pat Papac.
Unheralded when the season began, the Grizzlies (15-9) made it as far as the state’s Elite Eight last year, falling to Meridian in a regional championship game.
Pitching again figures to be the key to Hoquiam’s fortunes. The Grizzlies return their top two pitchers, junior lefty Sammy Lowder and senior right-hander Josh Steen.
Hoquiam coach Steve Jump is also optimistic about the remainder of the mound staff — juniors Tristan Stutesman and Joel Brydon and sophomore Kyle Standstipher.
“I would say pitching is our strength, we’ve got a lot of depth,” he said.
Jump believes the Grizzlies will be about as productive offensively as last year, but expresses concern about outfield defense.
“I think we’ll have to do the little things right,” the Hoquiam coach observed. “I think we have the team to get it done, we’ll just have to do it. We have to create a little luck and we’ll have to lean on our pitchers.”
Probable Hoquiam starters include junior Josh Bishop or senior Ian Peyton at catcher, Brydon or Standstipher at first base, senior Jaycob Guined at second, Steen or Stutesman at shortsop and senior Drew Bravos at third base.
Lowder will be in center field when not pitching, but the remainder of the outfield is uncertain. Junior Blake Kelly and sophomore Kolby Standstipher (Kyle’s twin brother) are could fill the corner positions. Senior Devon Fawley is also available, with junior Jake Oliver and sophomore Camden Anderson floating between varsity and JV teams.
Ronnie Espedal, a second-team all-league catcher as a junior last year, is turning out for track this season.
Jump will be assisted by Zac Reynvaan and Jimmy Hargrove at the varsity level, with Rusty Standstipher, Curtis Perry and Marty Skinner handling the jayvees.
Montesano and Tenino are the league favorites, in Jump’s estimation, with Rochester, Elma and his club also figuring in the mix.
The Eagles (12-9 last season) must overcome inexperience to earn a return trip to district. Only three full-time starters are back.
Like most teams in the league, however, Elma possesses a decent enough pitching staff to stay in most games.
Senior right-hander Layne Sutten is regarded as one of the league’s top hurlers. Seniors Charlie Simpson and Andrew Hamilton and juniors Nick Camenzind and Austin Neary fill out the rotation.
“They’re all pretty quality throwers and, defensively, I think we’ll be better than we were last year,” veteran coach Scott Rowland said. “But, with our team, the big question is can we score runs? That’s been our Achilles heel.”
Senior Austin Black, one of the few experienced Eagles, shifts from first base to catcher this season. Neary takes over the bulk of the first base duties, with senior Jesse Wolford at second base, Camenzind at short and Simpson at third base.
Todd Swinhart, one of Elma’s top hitters last year, returns in center field. Senior Tyler Ladue is the probable starter in left. Junior Ricky Escalante, who had been expected to open in right field, is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Sophomore Joe Eaton will see action as a utility man.
Rowland projects Montesano as a clear league favorite, followed by Tenino, Hoquiam and Rochester.
“We’re going to be sitting there battling like crazy for a playoff spot,” he said.
Mike Osgood and Colin McMaster will serve as Rowland’s assistant, with John Tarman again coaching the jayvees.