By NEIL PIERSON
Medical Lake's baseball program is coming off a successful 2006 season in which it finished 13-9 and earned a share of the Great Northern League title.
This season's team, however, will be working without five talented seniors lost to graduation. Gone is All-GNL first team pitcher Ryan Reitmeier and three second team choices—first baseman Kyle Erickson, pitcher Jon O'Connor and outfielder Justin Propeck.
ML starts over at many positions this spring. First-year skipper T.J. Smith is working with 10 first-time varsity players and, naturally, is a bit unsure of who will fit where as the season begins.
Poor field conditions forcing the team to work out indoors haven't helped either.
“We've been messing with the mud all the first week, and the second week we were working on the field, so we haven't really gotten out there,” said Smith, noting they had their first intrasquad game last Thursday.
The Cardinals' youth is particularly evident in the pitching rotation. Erickson, O'Connor, Reitmeier and Anthony Jorgenson were workhorses last year, gobbling up five or six innings in most starts.
But without a senior arm or any prior varsity experience among this season's group, there's some concern over wear and tear.
Juniors Chris Culnane, Tyler Owens and Zach Worl, sophomores T.J. Gover and Brendan Greene, and freshman Nick Pacheco are jockeying for time on the mound. Gover and Worl showed some flashes of greatness during American Legion play last summer.
“We just need to get a staff out of those six that hopefully can give us some innings,” Smith said. “I feel that all six of those should contribute in some form or another.”
Owens will do most of the catching duties, backed up by senior Josh Kissack, and had a good 2006 campaign in a primarily reserve role. Senior B.J. Palmer moves from third base to first and will be relied upon as one of ML's top power hitters and run producers.
Pacheco gets the starting nod at second base, but could be challenged throughout the year by sophomore Cody Costello. With O'Connor and Jorgenson graduating, junior Mike Constantine shifts to shortstop. Nathan Bible, a first-year sophomore, could also see spot duties there.
The outfield's most experienced player is senior Ryan King, the starter in left field for most of 2006. Junior Blake Schluter, junior Adam Ray and sophomore Greg Vaughn will also fit into the picture, though none have an inning of varsity experience.
Smith doesn't have a general idea of how the batting order will shake out, saying last Thursday that he wanted to “keep them guessing.” One of the team's strengths at this point, he said, is defense.
Limiting errors and mental mistakes should be important for developing confidence in the young pitchers, and equally vital to an offense that might take a while to find its groove.
“I think our defense will be fine,” the coach said. “We're needing to focus on pitching and hitting.”
Another good sign is versatility. Gover, Kissack and Owens can play just about anywhere, and others may be shifted around depending on the team's needs.
“We've got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions,” Smith said.
The team lost its opener on Monday afternoon, falling to visiting Lakeside 13-2 in five innings. The Eagles knocked Gover out in the third inning, scoring seven runs in the frame to pull away. King, Constantine, Owens and Vaughn had the Cardinals' four hits—all singles.
Being new to the GNL also means Smith doesn't have to worry about three new teams—Cheney, Clarkston and West Valley. State participant Lakeside moved to the 1A classification, though defending co-champions Colville and Pullman have some of their best players back and figure to be in the hunt again.
“I think those three teams are really going to get the competition raised,” Smith said. “I think we'll do fine, but I think it's going to be a lot tougher league than what the other teams are used to.”
Neil Pierson can be reached at email@example.com