Philomath High School's baseball team has three pretty good challenges during this preseason while preparing for the opener this coming Tuesday.
First, several key players will be joining workouts late because of the basketball team's appearance in the state playoffs. Second, the rain continues to fall to soften the field and hamper efforts to get in outside practice time.
There's really nothing new about those first two factors. The basketball program pretty much makes the playoffs every year and as for the rain, well, it's springtime in Oregon.
But it's the third challenge that will be the biggest obstacle for the Warriors to overcome. Coach Levi Webber lost his top four hitters from last year's squad, a contingent that advanced to the state semifinals. Austin Gerding, Casey Croy and Logan Williams were among the top players in all of Class 4A last season with all three suiting up this year at the collegiate level. The fourth player, Riley Davis, was right there in the mix with the best and is also playing in college, but in a different sport.
Not only does the batting order take a hit, but Williams (catcher), Davis (shortstop), Gerding (center field) and Croy (pitcher, utility) also leave a hole right up the middle of the field.
"The middle of the field in baseball is where you want to be strong and when you lose your catcher, your shortstop, your center fielder and then Casey kinda played everywhere, it makes things challenging," Webber said. "But I feel good about the athletes we have coming back this year."
And that's an important statement from the veteran head coach. Webber loves that his players are exceptional athletes, the type that he can throw out on the field just about anywhere and they'll be competitive.
"When you've got the athletes, you can make adjustments," Webber said.
The Warriors bring back five regulars from last year's lineup in Nolan Jackson, Brooks Stearns, Tony Rath, Marshall Brattain and Tyler Pfarrer.
Heading into the season, it appears that Webber will go with a play-by-committee approach out in center field. It comes down to who the coach starts on the mound.
"We've got three capable kids who are all a little bit different but all can play the position," Webber said. "Nolan Jackson played some out there last summer as well as first base. Kenan Conner can run around and is pretty fast and is a good athlete and he'll see some time there. Tony Rath has just been our most consistent defensive outfielder on the corners for the last couple of years and he'll bounce over and play. It just kinda depends on who's throwing that day for what we're going to be out there."
The situation looks a little more set in stone at a few other key positions.
Stearns played outfield and was the backup catcher last season. He got in a lot of innings behind the plate with last summer's D1 team. Stearns hit .301 last spring with the Warriors.
"Defensively, I think he'll be just fine as long as he gets over a little shoulder issue he's dealing with from wrestling," Webber said. "We'll make sure he's 100 percent coming back from that."
Pfarrer has been a mainstay in the lineup for the last couple of seasons but will make the move from second to shortstop.
"He played short for us in the summer and he had a good summer defensively, which we like to see," Webber said. "He's a little different from Riley but he's very capable and very good defensively, so we'll put him there."
Philomath may have a few sluggers with plans to put together big numbers, but good pitching is a must for ultimate success. With Croy and Williams gone, Jackson becomes the top returning pitcher with 38 innings under his belt from last season, including playoff appearances.
"It's always just about being able to throw strikes," Webber said. "When he throws strikes, he does really well. When he gets behind and gives free passes, he struggles. But I'm expecting him to grow up a lot as a senior this year and kinda lead us out there."
Conner will also be leaned upon this season to turn in quality innings. He threw 37-1/3 innings two seasons ago and had a 1.50 earned run average with 27 strikeouts.
"It's good to see him out here; he's just a strike thrower," Webber said. "At the end of his sophomore season, he was as good as there was around whether it was our team or anybody."
Brattain gives Philomath a third pitcher that has some varsity experience with 15 innings and a 1.40 ERA last year.
"So we have three and after that, we're just plugging in," Webber said. "We've got three, four guys after that who are definitely going to see some innings."
Jackson, Brattain and Pfarrer represent those getting a late start in baseball because of the basketball playoffs.
"Right now, it's mostly young kids. Right now, it's mostly about getting the younger kids, the freshmen, the newcomers, getting them accustomed to what we do," Webber said. "Lot of skills and drills type stuff early on. It's just growth every day more than anything else. That's what you're looking for, to get better every day."
One of the biggest changes fans will notice this season involves the Oregon West Conference schedule. In past years, schools met for a home-and-away series in the same week and then finished up with single games three times a week for a final run through the league.
This season, however, coaches voted to just play a three-game series each week. For example, Philomath will play Stayton at home April 2, away April 3 and at home April 5. Games in the series will typically take place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Webber said coaches felt that when those three-game weeks arrived for that final run, some teams were able to stack their pitching depending on the opponent.
"We felt as far as the competitive balance goes, everybody's seeing essentially the same thing from every team," Webber said. "I think you'll get a little bit more clear of a representation of who the best team top to bottom is in the league just because you'll have to see everybody's arms as you go through the week. It'll be different but I think it'll be good."
Former PHS player and college senior Stephen Coskey joins the program this season as a volunteer assistant with the junior varsity team. The rest of the coaching staff remains intact, including Rom Morella as the JV head coach.
"Last year, we were a little shorthanded at the JV level," Webber said. "Ron did a good job, it's just nice to get another body and another set of eyes to go down there and help him out."
Philomath opens the season this coming Tuesday at home against Elmira before its annual trip down south March 16-17 to face Henley and Klamath Union. The Warriors will compete in the Newport tournament March 26-27 with games against Dallas, Siuslaw and Estacada.