Deep Wa-Hi team ready for hardball season

Wa-Hi has 13 returning baseball players to ‘one of the deepest' Blue Devil teams coach Keith Gradwohl has coached.

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Wa-Hi baseball coach Keith Gradwohl works his pitchers through a series of exercises on a cool spring afternoon at Murr Sports Park Thursday.

WALLA WALLA - Just four new players join 13 returning athletes on Wa-Hi's baseball team, which finished 10-11 overall last year, losing in the first round of the district tournament to Wenatchee.

That strength and experience has led Wa-Hi coach Keith Gradwohl to call the 2011 Blue Devils "one of the deepest teams I've ever coached. We've got kids that can play at every spot, and pretty much two kids who can play at every spot. So we're really looking forward to the season."

The season opens with a jamboree Saturday in Kennewick, when the Blue Devils will face 3A schools Southridge and Sunnyside. The Big Nine Class 4A season opens April 9 against Eisenhower.

The team's motto in 2010 was, "We will play hard," and the 13 returning athletes have decided this year's is, "We will play hard the sequel," Gradwohl said.

"We want to the kids to bounce around, play hard and have fun," he said. "The expectations of the 2011 team are quite high, and they have high expectations of themselves."

Senior pitchers Drew Christina, Matt Watson, Kevin Toon and Jake Campeau will lead from the mound. The four pitchers combined for seven of the team's 10 wins last year.

"We have kids with varsity experience on the hill, which will help," Gradwohl said. "Our pitching should be solid."

Watson, also an outfielder, was a first-team all-conference selection in 2010. And Campeau and Toon were both honorable mentions on the all-conference list.

Campeau is a first baseman and Toon plays shortstop.

Conor Holbrook, also an honorable-mention all-conference honoree, is behind the plate.

Jake Jimenez, a second-team all-conference selection, is at first base.

Outfielder Brett Christina will likely be the designated hitter for the Blue Devils, Gradwohl said.

Rounding out the seniors are outfielders Nick Poolman and Jacob Thomason, infielder Tyler Stevenson and second baseman Michael Pontarolo.

The returning juniors are outfielder Moe Handcox and second baseman Josh Eggers. Juniors Michael Lesmeister (first base and pitcher), Will Parnicky (shortstop and pitcher), Sean Hollenbeck (outfield) and Taylor Lemke (catcher and first base) complete the varsity roster.

"We've got a pretty good mix of juniors and seniors. We've got extremely high expectations," Gradwohl said.

Starting positions will be hammered out as the season evolves, he said.

"We'll evaluate things starting on Saturday as we get into action and see what we can do," he said.

The Big Nine, led by perennial state power Richland, is always a tough league to compete in, he said.

"Everyone can play," Gradwohl said of the league. "We want to give Richland a run for their money. They're always the top of the conference and we want to play them."

Richland finished second at state last year.

The team started practicing Feb. 28 and has been forced inside by weather once, but Gradwohl isn't worried.

"We've been outside and a lot of these guys are returning, so things are running pretty smoothly because they know what we expect," he said. "We have things down because of the experience we have coming back."

And the deep and experienced Blue Devils hardballers are ready to play.

"I think the kids want to get farther then districts, and that's what we expect," Gradowhl said. "Our goal is always to make playoffs, but if you ask any senior, their goal is to win a state championship and that's our goal, too."

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