WALLA WALLA - After going 1-for-3 at the NWAACC East Region tournament last year under first-year coach Dave Meliah, the Walla Walla Community College baseball team wants to finish a few games better this season.
"We want to win the East Region title," Meliah said. "That's what we've talked about from early on last fall. We want to get better and learn the right way to play the game, but ultimately we want to win the league and give ourselves the best chance to get into the NWAACCs."
And Meliah believes his team, anchored by 11 returning sophomores and one transfer, has the talent and drive to get there.
Brett Watson and Wa-Hi product Nick Jordan lead the team from the mound. Both played in the Sophomore Showcase event last fall. Watson, the solo starting left-hander, was selected an NWAACC Baseball All-Star for his 2010 play.
Josh Yundt, Anthony Garza and Christian Jacobsen will back up Watson and Jordon from the bullpen.
Kyle Sani will catch for the Warriors. He joined Jordan and Watson in the Sophomore Showcase.
Marc Garza is at first base and be in the top of the batting lineup.
Chance Kopacz, an Oregon product and transfer from Lewis-Clark State, and Justin Windsor, will alternate at third base.
Windsor has "probably improved more than anyone else" since last year, Meliah said.
And Kopacz's experience at L-C State has helped prove he's capable of playing at a higher level. He'll likely be designated hitter.
The last three returning sophomores will handle outfield duties.
Alex Bonczyk, Tyler Roberts and Brandon Renteria all saw play time last season.
Bonczyk received an NWAACC Golden Glove for his play in center field last season and will see time as lead-off batter.
"He's one of the fastest guys I've ever coached," Meliah said.
Bonczyk has already verbally committed to Niagara University, a Division I school in New York, for his junior and senior seasons.
"It's exciting," Meliah said of Bonczyk's potential. "He could have a future in professional baseball. He's got the speed and the abilities."
Roberts, who was in the Sophomore Showcase as well, can also pitch and will likely start some games, including this weekend as the Warriors host Miles Saturday and Clark Sunday. He's also signed a national letter of intent with NAIA Campbellsville University in Kentucky, a preseason No. 19 in the nation.
Meliah expects Renteria, the final sophomore on the squad, to have a big impact on the team.
All of the sophomores will have time on the field.
"These guys will see big play time and we're going to count on all of them to lead the freshmen," Meliah said.
And it's a big freshmen class with 20 players filling the dugout.
Walla Walla products Matt Wujek (DeSales) and Ryan James (Wa-Hi), both outfielders, join Burbank infielder Neal Schuck as the local names. The rest come from across the region - from the Seattle area to southeastern Idaho.
"As a whole, they're a talented group," Meliah said. "There are a lot of first-team and all-league players in the group. They bring an incredible work ethic and I've been pleased with them and the whole team since the first day of fall training."
The freshmen pitchers are Gary Koopman (Wendell, Idaho), Jason Renner (Spokane) and Connor Lawhead (Sammamish, Wash.).
Infielders include Joe Arlt (Spokane Valley), Dane Berg (Spokane Valley), Kevin Birch (Idaho Falls), Zach Borgman (Meridian, Idaho), Jeff Gillespie (Meridian, Idaho), Jared Jordan (Twin Falls, Idaho), Kasey Knigge (Lewiston) and Dalton Moore (Elgin, Ore.).
Caleb Guerber (Rathdrum, Idaho), Tyler Harshfield (Wallowa, Ore.), K.C. Hooper (Kennewick), Mile Paulson (Sammamish, Wash.) and Kole Stein (La Grande, Ore.) join Wujek and James in the outfield.
"They're working hard and they're picking up things quickly," Meliah said. "It makes it easier to teach them the more intricate details of the game.
The Warriors open against non-league foe Miles Community College in a 1 p.m. Saturday doubleheader. They host Clark at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Taking the field is welcome after a long winter, Meliah said.
"We got a little claustrophobic," he said. "The guys want to get outside. But it (training) went well and I can't complain."
The Warriors travel across the Northwest, including at two tournaments, before opening league play March 30 at Spokane.
And with six NWAACC teams in the top 25 in the American Baseball Association (ABCA) preseason poll, both regional and NWAACC play should provide tough opposition.
Columbia Basin is a preseason No. 15 in the ABCA and No. 3 in the NWAACC. The Warriors host the Hawks in a single game March 12.
"Top to bottom, the NWAACC and East Region are very talented," Meliah said. "And I think we'll be able to compete. But everyone is able to beat anyone on any day, so I expect every game to drag out. There are no weaklings in the East Region."