March 28, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 49

Cheney baseball just needs time to reveal 'upside'

Pitching, interchangeability will be keys to Blackhawks attempts to return to state tournament

Cheney High’s baseball team is off to a 1-4 start, but if that seems discouraging, the Blackhawks and their fans can check a little recent history – last year’s squad also started 1-4.

That team went on to win 15 of their last 20 games, seven straight at one point, en route a 17-9 record, District 7 title and second seed to the 2A state tournament where they lost to East Valley-Yakima in the quarterfinals.

Blackhawks manager Randy Elam returns three of last year’s nine starters for his eighth season at the helm of Cheney baseball: seniors Austin Harding and Connor Netz along with sophomore Dominic Bonilla. All three bring valuable experience, having played in last year’s playoff run.

Defensively Bonilla, second-team All-Great Northern League last year, returns behind the plate, with junior Josh Arthur at first, senior Robbie Cook at second, Harding at short and junior Tristan Flippo at third. Netz sets up in left, with seniors Tyler Gustafson in center and Tanner Gamby in right.

Rounding out the squad are Noah Ziemann, Tanner “Bubba” Smith, Sawyer Sims, Alex Berman, Kyle Krieger, Joey Beamer and RC Reed, with several starters and subs capable moving around in the lineup.

“We have a few guys who can play multiple positions, which is a huge plus,” Elam said in an email. “Lots of interchangeable parts.”

That can also be said for Cheney’s pitching, which Elam said is “still evolving.” While it will be difficult to replace last year’s GNL Most Valuable Player Jeremy Alderman – who pitched a no-hitter against East Valley in the district title game – the Blackhawks have a number of experienced arms in Cook, Gamby, Harding, Netz, Sims and Berman.

“I really believe, as long as we stay healthy, that our pitching staff will be one of the best, if not the best, in the league,” Elam said. “We just need to get them innings and experience.”

Offensively the order will change depending on who is pitching, but right now sets up with Bonilla leading off, followed by Harding, Sims and Netz in clean up. Hitting fifth is Gustafson, with Berman, Gamby, Arthur and Flippo behind.

For Elam, it adds up to a team that’s mentally tough, tremendous competitors and has “great” chemistry.

“Again, this ball club has a tremendous amount of ‘upside,’” he said. “Mainly due to the type of kids that they are.”

So far, the Blackhawks have played like a young, varsity-inexperienced team that is trying to find themselves and beginning to show some signs. Cheney dropped a season-opening doubleheader at Prosser March 9, 5-1 and 3-2, out hitting the Mustangs 10-9 overall, with Gamby having three hits on the afternoon.

Cheney struggled on the mound, walking nine Prosser hitters overall, but showing mental toughness by bearing down in difficult situations.

“We never really got our offense going,” Elam said. “Not enough base runners with less than two outs.”

The Blackhawks had similar troubles March 19 in a 5-0, league loss to West Valley in the home opener, scattering five hits, singles by Netz (2), Harding, Arthur and Gustafson. Smith took the loss, pitching well in his first varsity outing, Elam said, but getting a couple balls up in the strike zone against a good hitting West Valley team.

Cheney earned its first win by splitting a doubleheader last Saturday at Clarkston, taking the nightcap 5-1 after losing the opener 13-9. In the opener the Blackhawks trailed the Bantams 13-4 heading into the seventh inning, but responded with five runs in the frame, loading the bases with one out before Bonilla smacked a hard shot at the Clarkston second baseman, who made a nice play to turn two and end the game.

Netz took the loss, with Harding (2), Sims, Netz, Gustafson and Arthur all collecting singles. Cheney committed six errors.

In the nightcap the Blackhawks bats came alive with 12 hits, including a 2 RBI double by Bonilla in the fourth that proved to be the game winner. Netz had three singles, Harding and Berman two each with Bonilla and Sims both smacking doubles.

Sims got the win, throwing a one-hitter over five innings, striking out five and walking two. Harding came on in relief in the sixth.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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