WALLA WALLA - New Whitman College baseball coach Jared Holowaty had relatively few arrows in his quiver last spring as he coaxed a handful of victories from a team that battled through most of the season with just 13 players.
And the bare-bones roster Holowaty inherited continued to shrink at season's end when five of his best players graduated in May.
Given that backdrop, fans of Whitman baseball can be thankful that Holowaty and assistant coaches Mark Michaud, Sean Kinney and Brian Kitamura were beating the bushes to produce a 2010-11 recruiting class that is both deep and talented.
Comprised of 16 freshmen, two sophomores and one junior, it may well be the largest recruiting class in the long history of Whitman baseball.
"In terms of talent and depth, we're a much better team this spring," Holowaty said. "The difference is ten-fold. This season is all about youth, excitement and revitalization.
"One of the keys for us is how quickly our young guys make the transition to college baseball," he said. "I told them after our fall workouts that their freshmen season was over. Now the freshmen have to play like sophomores, and the sophomores have to play like juniors."
While Holowaty and his assistants are doing what they can to get the rookies ready for this spring's trial by fire, they are thankful for the return of seniors Erik Korsmo, Jay Richards and Pat Stauffer.
"A lot of new, developing programs with 19 new guys on a 24-man roster won't have the kind of solid senior leadership that we have," Holowaty said. "We're very fortunate to have Erik, Jay and Pat showing the new guys how it's done."
Korsmo and Richards, the senior captains, are playing their fourth seasons, while Stauffer has junior athletic eligibility after transferring to Whitman as a sophomore.
Korsmo, in his second season as a captain, earned All-NWC Honorable Mention last spring, spending the bulk of his time at catcher. He led Whitman in hitting for a second straight season (.353 batting average, .525 slugging percentage, .467 on-base percentage) and also pitched in 13 games, seven as a starter. He earned saves in both ends of a doubleheader sweep of Lewis & Clark.
A position change of sorts is also in the works for Richards, who spent the bulk of the last two seasons at shortstop. Given the influx of infield talent, Richards moves to first base this spring, where he played for much of his freshman campaign.
Richards hit .340 during the 2010 conference season, handling the bat in more ways than one. He led the team with nine sacrifice bunts on the season, but he also clubbed a two-run home run and RBI-triple against Cal Lutheran.
Stauffer, a second baseman, had his best season at the plate as a sophomore, when he hit .267. He also has swiped 10 bases in 12 attempts in the past two seasons.
The only other returnees on the team are sophomore pitchers Justin Weeks and Tyler Grisdale.
Weeks, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, is making the transition to a pitching-only role this year after pitching, catching and playing in the outfield as a freshman.
Weeks, one of many candidates for a starting role on the mound, threw last summer for a Connie Mac team near his home in California, posting a 3.50 earned run average (ERA) and making the league's post-season all-star team.
Grisdale, a 6-foot-1 right-hander, made 11 relief appearances last season as a freshman. He tossed two innings of no-hit, no-run ball against La Verne and came back the next day to get the final two outs against Occidental.
Pitching was a huge focus in building the recruiting class, Holowaty said.
"As always, pitching and defense wins game, and we're very pleased with the additions we've made to the pitching staff," he said.
The new class includes nine new arms, including three lefties. Most of those hurlers will pitch only.
"Our plan when we got started last year was to build around four-year players rather than community college transfers, but we also knew that we were going to have a very young pitching staff," he adds. "To take some pressure off the younger guys, we wanted to bring in a few transfers who have pitched already at the college level."
The two transfers are Brett Lambert, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, and Jake Nelson, a 6-foot-4 lefty.
Lambert, a graduate of nearby Dayton High, comes to Whitman as a sophomore. He pitched in a closer's role as a freshman last season at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC). This past summer, he fanned 55 in 54 innings with a 3.00 ERA as a starter for a summer league team in Walla Walla.
Nelson, a graduate of Kennewick High, pitched two seasons at WWCC, compiling a 2.97 ERA. He held opposing hitters to a .208 batting average as a sophomore.
The cast of freshmen hurlers is a big one full of promise.
Aaron Cohen is a 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-hander from Juneau, Alaska; Sterling Spilinek is a 6-foot-1 lefty from Douglas, Wyo.; Dakota Matherly is a 6-foot-3 right-hander from Park City, Utah; Tristan Gaven is a 6-foot-1, 200-pound righty from Santa Cruz, Calif.; Wyatt Thomas is a 6-foot-2 220-pound lefty from Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego; Ethan Parrish is a 6-foot-2 right-hander from Golden, Colo.; Jeremiah Papa is a 5-foot-10 right-hander from Tacoma; and Jonny Lari is a freshman from North Eugene High in Eugene.While Richards and Stauffer give Whitman a veteran presence at first and second bases, freshmen Cam Young (Wenatchee) and Kyle Moyes (Henderson, Nev.) have the inside tracks at shortstop and third base.
Other freshman possibilities for the infield include Chris Andrews (Medina, Wash.) at second base, Chris Konolidge (Devon, Penn.) at shortstop, C.J. Pentland (Delta, B.C.) at first base, David Fleming (Daly City, Calif.) and Casey Minnick (Portland, Ore.) at either first or third.
Starters in the outfield, at least for now, are Korsmo in right with freshmen Jimmy Madden (Huntington Beach, Calif.) in center and Kyle Buckham (Bellingham, Wash.) in right.
Pentland, Moyes and Richards provide the outfield depth.
"I really like our freshman class and the attitude they bring to the field," Holowaty said. "We've got guys who have the mindset that they belong on a baseball diamond, and who like to compete and battle.
"We've got some very good athletes and a lot of them can run. We'll continue to emphasize the importance of putting pressure on the defense, either by anticipating balls in the dirt or just stealing bases. We did a good job manufacturing runs last season and we'll do a better job this spring."
Holowaty has no doubt his team can pick off more victories this season, but he adds that "winning is not the emphasis. Our emphasis is on having a passion for the process of preparing and playing the game. If we're successful with the process, we'll win our share of the games."
When push comes to shove, winning games in the NWC is not easy, he adds.
"Every team in this conference is competitive, and any team can beat any other team on any given day.
"Linfield always has good players, and George Fox and Pacific Lutheran should be very good this season. Puget Sound and Willamette are always solid. Pacific, Lewis & Clark and Whitworth have the talent to compete with any of the others."
Whitman makes its season debut Thursday with a series of four games in Anthem, Ariz., against other NCAA Division III schools played through the weekend.
The Missionaries host their first NWC games when Lewis & Clark comes to town on March 12-13.