WALLA WALLA - Wa-Hi's baseball team for 2010 has seven returning players with experience and oodles of talent who love baseball.
Add to that a group of gifted players moving up from the junior varsity that also loves the game, and it's no wonder first-year Blue Devil coach Keith Gradwohl and assistant Scott Tibbling look forward to practice every day.
"Practices have been awesome," Gradwohl said. "The weather has been great, and the kids love the game. Scott and I have been ecstatic at how well practices have been going."
The Blue Devils take a bare-knuckled mantra onto this season: "We will play hard," Gradwohl said. "That's the way we will approach every game."
Leading the Blue Devils' 2010 charge will be five seniors and two juniors.
The seniors are Ryan James (right-handed pitcher, first baseman and outfielder), Zach Meyer (catcher), Morgan Maddess (center fielder), Aaron Flippo (left fielder) and Justin Mathews (middle infielder).
The juniors are Drew Christina (left-handed pitcher) and Matt Watson (right-handed pitcher and outfielder).
Senior Cody Webb (pitcher, outfielder) is out for the first time and should see action.
The other players on the varsity roster, with some expected to see action at the junior varsity level, include nine juniors and two sophomores.
The juniors are Jake Campeau (pitcher, first base), Kevin Toon (pitcher, middle infielder), Jake Jimenez (first base, third base), Nick Ocanaz (first base), Tyler Stevenson (third base), Michael Pontorolo (middle infielder), Brett Christina (outfield), Conor Holbrook (catcher) and Paul Oberg (catcher).
The sophomores are Moe Handcox (pitcher, outfield) and Josh Eggers (middle infielder).
"Ryan James is our No. 1 pitcher," Gradwohl said. "He extremely competitive on the mound. When he's out there, the kids relax because they trust him."
James, at 6-foot-3, throws hard, but his best pitch is a "straight change-up," Gradwohl said.
"His change-up is so good that it adds velocity to his fastball," he said. "But he has a very good fastball, too. Ryan is a three-sport athlete, and he knows how to win. He is also a legitimate power hitter. That may not be so important at Murr (Wa-Hi's Murr Sports Complex) because it is such a large field, but he should hit some home runs on the road."
Meyer gives Wa-Hi experience behind the plate.
"Zach logged a lot of innings behind the dish for us last year," Gradwohl said. "We have confidence in him. He's also a left-handed hitter, and he can really swing it."
Gradwohl calls Maddess a "wizard in center field," who brings speed and competitiveness to the team.
"He's also a three-sport athlete, and he started in center last year," Gradwohl said. "We hope he will continue to improve his great defense and that he will hit a little bit."
Aaron Flippo also brings speed and skill to the roster.
"Aaron is a kid that can run," Gradwohl said. "He's a good defensive player, and he can handle the bat well and bunt. He's strong. We're hoping that Aaron has a break-out year during his senior season."
Mathews earned second-team all conference honors last year at second base. This year he will move to shortstop.
"Justin is coming off of a real good season," Gradwohl said. "He's a high energy guy, and he can run. He led the division in stolen bases as a sophomore, and he led the team in stolen bases as a junior. Justin can play, and this is his third year as a starter."
Drew Christina is a lefty who recorded "significant" innings on the mound last year, Gradwohl said.
"Drew is our No. 2 starter, and he will be a good one," he said. "He's left-handed, and he has great arm action with good velocity. And he's grown a lot since last year."
Matt Watson at 6-2 and around 190 pounds has also grown a lot, Gradwohl said.
"Matt has gotten bigger and stronger, and he probably has the best velocity on our pitching staff," he said. "He's also a legitimate power hitter and will see action in right field."
"Most of these kids played summer ball last year and had good success," Gradwohl said. "We're in a tough division (the Big Nine Conference's Cascade Division) with the always tough Richland and Kamiakin, but we're extremely excited about what's going on here (at Wa-Hi).
"We have all of our innings pitched back on the mound, and we have Zach Meyer and Conor Holbrook behind the plate. and Holbrook can flat play," Gradwohl said. "And we have more depth than usual. So, we have a lot of options with kids that have had baseball success. Kevin Toon, for example, is coming off of a summer season when he batted over .500.
"And this is a nice group of kids," he added. "They're smart, and they come from a strong baseball tradition in Walla Walla.
"We want these kids to realize just how good they area," Gradwohl said. "So, we will play hard and let the chips fall."