"It was all I lived for, to play baseball." - Mickey Mantle
Those students looking to attend Western Oregon University can be assured of only a few things during their tenure: 1) the price of books will always be surprisingly high, 2) you will inevitably spend time walking to classes in the rain, and 3) the Wolves will be competing for their next Great Northwest Athletic Conference title.
The Wolves are coming off a 2011 season in which they went 37-15 and won their 10th straight GNAC title (11th straight overall) with a 27-5 record to qualify for the NCAA West Regional for the third time in four seasons. Head coach Jeremiah Robbins has put together a sparkling 202-98 record, including a 141-31 mark in GNAC play, during his six seasons in Monmouth but he believes that his seventh year could be the special one.
The Wolves will return 16 letterwinners, including all four members of the starting pitching staff in the team's quest to reach the NCAA Division II Championships in Cary, N.C. The first step on that journey to the Promised Land will start as it always does for the Wolves under coach Robbins, against the best talent the West Region has to offer.
Early season: The Wolves will open the season at No. 30, UC San Diego on Friday, Feb. 3, for a four-game series as they look to get revenge against the team that eliminated them from the 2011 West Regional.
"Looking at UC San Diego we know they are very good," said Robbins. "They lost some of their core but they have reloaded very nicely and once again it is a championship atmosphere down there. We are definitely going into a hostile environment against a polished team that is very well coached and it will be a big task for us to go down there and find ways to play the game right.
"The score will be what it is, and we won't focus on that. We are going to focus on us and playing good Wolves baseball," Robbins added.
The Wolves will then travel up the coast to face Sonoma State who won the West Regional and reached the semifinal of the NCAA Championships. Western will face the Seawolves in a five-game set beginning on Feb. 8.
"We take it game by game, and we do not put any more emphasis on one game than the next, but whenever you go out of conference in region they are important games," explained Robbins. "We do not put more emphasis on it than the NNU or Saint Martin's series, but the talent we are playing is very good."
Training: Despite the challenges Western Oregon faces to open the season on the road, with the limited number of outdoor practices, the team has been working tirelessly to prepare both physically and mentally for their opening road trip. The team has taken up a focused strength and conditioning program under Western's first year Director of Sports Performance Cori Metzgar-Deacon to fine tune its stamina and movements. The baseball coaches have also been working on preparing the team on the mental side and building their confidence.
"Sometimes when we open in California our confidence can take a hit but we have to just keep believing and fighting," Robbins said. "Things have flown by to get to this point in the season and things can get overwhelming but you have to have that quiet confidence and know you are going to succeed. We preach to all the guys to just believe in their talents and it will be interesting to see how they respond when they get knocked down."
Coach Robbins also talked about the steps members of this team have taken outside the game of baseball to improve the team as the team quickly acclimated all the newcomers and transfers to Wolves' baseball early in the school year.
"The chemistry (on the team) has been very good since day one," Robbins explained. "I have talked with everybody just how close knit this team is. That is one thing we have missed here before, getting that chemistry early. We always get it but it is usually halfway through the season when guys figure it out, but we did it much quicker this year, so it has been great to be a part of."
Goals: As that team came together and started working for one another, coach Robbins and his staff also made sure to indoctrinate the culture of discipline and expectations established within the Western baseball program.
"Our number one goal every season is to defend our GNAC title," Robbins said. "It is something we are very proud of and our guys do not take it lightly. It is a tough title to defend whenever you are facing a team eight times and we embrace the challenge. That is why we play the teams we do in the preseason; we feel it prepares us to play our league schedule."
Even with the walls in the New PE Building becoming overrun with GNAC baseball championships and player of the year honors, coach Robbins has not become the slightest bit complacent as he continues to set the sights beyond just the GNAC title as he looks to bring Western its first ever Regional title and ticket to the College World Series.
"Our other two goals fall right in line behind that number one goal because without the first goal you do not even get to try for our other two goals which are to win the West Regional and the National Championship," Robbins noted. "I feel they are very realistic goals. I know I am one of over 200 coaches in Division II that has the goal of winning a National Championship.
"I think we have the right group of guys that are more than words, and are going to take action," Robbins continued. "I felt we had the talent in years past to get out of a regional but I didn't feel the guys thought they could. We are not putting the goal out there of Cary, N.C., as the only focus, but we've got to speak the words and have that as our goal. We are past the point of just saying it, and I believe this team is talented enough to achieve all three of our goals."
Pitching: To have any type of success in baseball it all starts with pitching, which is why coach Robbins and all Wolves baseball fans are so optimistic about the upcoming season. Western will bring back the 2011 GNAC Pitcher of the Year Grady Wood and 2012 preseason All-American Kirk Lind to lead the starting staff.
Last season, Wood went 8-4 with a 2.32 earned run average and three shutouts. He struck out 77 batters in 100.2 innings and opponents hit just .214 off him. Lind may have been even more impressive. After beginning the season as the Wolves' closer and recording five saves, Lind moved into the rotation he won all seven of his decisions (7-1) with a GNAC-record 1.53 ERA.
Lind and Wood will be joined in the rotation by fellow seniors Jason Wilson and Travis Bradshaw. Wilson was 3-0 with a 3.62 ERA early in the season last year for the Wolves, while Bradshaw and his 3.24 ERA move from the bullpen to the rotation.
Ian MacDougall, a 2011 All-GNAC first team selection, will be back to help anchor the bullpen along with fellow returning lefty Travis Shigeta. MacDougall appeared in 18 games for Western last season and had a 3-0 record with a 2.08 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 26 innings. Opponents hit just .180 on the southpaw.
"I like our chances on the mound this year," said Robbins. "We have four very quality starters and experience out of our bullpen mixed with some very talented arms we brought in.
"This is a good staff and the guys are intent on getting better," continued Robbins. "They are just going to go out and pitch and let the results take care of themselves. That is something we haven't had in the past, these guys just play the game."
Defense: If coach Robbins gets his wish and the Western pitchers keep throwing strikes, the Wolves should be in good shape as they look to have a solid defensive in place behind them.
Catcher: The Wolves lost Michael Chiarelli and Miles Kizer to graduation but coach Robbins brought in Kyle Blackwell (Treasure Valley CC) and Scott David (Fresno State) to compete for playing time at catcher.
"We lost two very good catchers so one of our needs was to go out and find an experienced catcher and we brought in two very good ones," noted Robbins. "Having two quality catchers and keeping them healthy is going to be key throughout the year."
First base: Last season Western Oregon used a number of different first basemen but this season coach Robbins is hoping his gamble of moving designated hitter and first team All-GNAC selection Bo Folkinga to first base will pay off.
"We have been working a lot with Bo Folkinga on becoming a better defensive first baseman," Robbins explained. "We know he is going to hit so we have to find ways to keep his bat in the lineup."
If Folkinga's bat does suffer from the rigors of being an every game first baseman coach Robbins knows there are still other options available to keep the Wolves productive at first base.
"We can get creative at the first base position because we have some new guys that can really hit the ball but really don't have another position or behind other players in a different position," said Robbins. "Grant Mascolo is one of them. He is very good defensively and his bat has been showing life this season. He will surprise a lot of teams this season."
This same excitement Robbins had about the opportunity to see Mascolo's performance was one he has about many of the student-athletes the team brought in this season.
"The thing I like about the team this year is we have a lot of unknowns in our program that we have been working with and polishing their skills that other teams don't even know about," he explained. "So when I see the preseason articles talking about the returners, I actually get more excited for the guys that other teams don't even know about."
Second base: The position that Western fans will have to get used to seeing a new face will be at second base where Robbins has three players competing for the starting spot. Two of these, Michael Gange and Eric Tinnell, were brought in as junior college transfers, while Jake Whistler returned to try and claim the position as a sophomore.
"We have to replace Grant Glover but I feel we have three very quality guys that can do that," Robbins said. "Tinnell is very polished and will probably see time all over the infield. Gange is a defensive specialist with some of the quickest hands I have ever seen at second base. We also have Jake Whistler returning and he is very good defensively and continues to make improvements with the bat."
Shortstop: The position the Wolves look to have made the biggest upgrade offensively from last season is at shortstop where Sacramento State transfer Blake Miller is expected to start.
"We made a big change at shortstop with Blake Miller transferring in from Sacramento State," Robbins said. "He allows us to use second team All-GNAC shortstop Josh Solemsaas at second base or third base.
"It is key to have guys that can play a couple of positions very well," continued Robbins. "We are excited about our depth on this year's team. Last year we were limited in our moves and even had trouble giving guys days off because we had no one else behind them to play that position. To have Blake on our club this year has been a huge boost for us both offensively and defensively."
Third base: The one familiar face on the diamond this season defensively for the Wolves should be all-conference returner Griff Boyd. Last season the senior from Medford, Ore. hit .291 with 27 RBI and provided a solid glove at third.
"He has mentally prepared himself much better than last year," said Robbins in reference to Boyd. "He is back healthy and he should be good to go again this year."
Coach Robbins was also optimistic about some of the other options the Wolves have over at the hot corner.
"We have Blake Lively who is a left– handed bat and that can play multiple positions," noted Robbins. "We also have a freshman, Garrett Harpole, who will see time at third base and on the mound for us. To have the depth we have while being sound both offensively and defensively makes me like the way we can match up against other teams with our infielders."
Outfield: That depth has also spilt over to the outfield where the Wolves have six student-athletes fighting for playing time. Returning right fielder AJ Royal is expected to make the shift over to center and claim that position for the season opener, and coach Robbins also expects All-NWAACC performer Matt Nylen to grab the right field spot but that still leaves JC transfers, David Amberson and Ethan Flory, along with returners Brady Locker and Eric Copenhagen to battle it out for that left field spot.
"The outfield is as good as it has ever been," said Robbins. "The outfielders are fast and all have very good arms, it is just a matter of who will stay consistent.
"Matt Nylen will be at one of the outfield spots and AJ Royal will be in centerfield," Robbins continued. "He is a completely different player than last year after doing a lot of growing in the offseason. He is the fastest centerfielder we have ever had and has an unbelievable arm. He is a good leader and sees the ball well.
"David Amberson is a big, physical kid that can just fly," Robbins continued. "He will probably hit somewhere in the middle of our lineup and is very sound defensively. He will probably see time on the mound too. Locker one of the top JC players in Northwest but battled injuries last two years and is now finally ready to go. Flory can run, has a plus arm and is very good defensively. He will match up well in certain situations."
Lineup: That depth the Wolves have on defense will transfer over to when they are at the plate as coach Robbins will have many more options to use different lineups and matchup situationally with the opponent.
"In the past we have been forced to have more of a set lineup but with this team being so versatile defensively and equally talented offensively, we are going to be forced to look at the matchups and that puts our players in the best situation where they can succeed," Robbins explained. "This is not a team that is going to be a big power team so we are going to need our speed guys to set things up. We have gone away from the power style, as we do not have that luxury this year, but we have guys that are going to hit, put the ball in play and then run.
"I am excited about our chances to run on the bases," he continued. "I think the best option is to be top heavy with our speed and sprinkle the power in."
On paper, the Wolves seem to have all the elements needed to make that run for a Regional Championship. Now it is just time to for the players to believe they belong and go play Wolves' baseball.
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