WALLA WALLA - Never let it be said that Jared Holowaty is one to shy away from competition.
Whitman College's third-year head baseball coach believes that the best way to build a winning program is to play up. Never mind the disparity between wins and losses.
For now, anyway.
"It can be argued both ways," said Holowaty, who came to Whitman prior to the 2010 season after a four-year tenure as an assistant coach at the University of Maine.
"You can give your kids a sense of self confidence - maybe a false sense of self confidence - by playing weaker teams and getting wins," he said. "I am on the other side of that. I think it makes you better to get your butt kicked once in a while."
Maybe more than once in a while, if you judge the butt-kickings by the number of losses that have piled up at Whitman in the last couple of years.
Holowaty's first Whitman team finished 5-34 overall and 4-20 in the Northwest Conference. Last year's Missionaries were 5-30 and matched the previous year's NWC mark while moving up one rung in the standings.
But there was a world of difference between 2010 and 2011, Holowaty will tell you.
"That first year I was basically managing our health because our numbers were so low," he recalled of a bare-to-the-bones squad that he basically inherited.
"We would show up for a three-game series in a 60-passenger bus and 13 players would get off. But they gave it their all even though they knew deep down that they were going to get their butts handed to them. I will never forget that team."
Holowaty's first recruiting class boosted the 2011 team's opening-day roster to 23. But with 16 freshmen and three sophomores, the Missionaries lacked the experience to successfully compete.
"Youth was our biggest weakness," Holowaty concurred. "That first recruiting class was very good, but they got thrown into the fire. We had 17- and 18-year-old kids going out and trying to compete at a national level, and I was very proud of them."
Last year's Whitman schedule, it turned out, ranked as the second most difficult schedule in all of NCAA Division III. This year's schedule, Holowaty believes, is even more challenging.
It begins, of course, with the Whits' NWC rivals. Linfield, which posted a 33-11 record in 2011, is No. 6 in this year's preseason NCAA Division III poll. George Fox is among those teams receiving votes, and the NWC in general is regarded as one of the better conferences in the country.
But that's not where it ends.
Intent on getting his team ready for the rigors of conference play, Holowaty has spiced up this year's non-league schedule with a couple of knee-buckling series.
Later this month, Whitman will entertain No. 9-ranked Eastern Connecticut State in a four-game series at Borleske Stadium. It begins with a 1 p.m. single Friday, Feb. 24, followed by a noon doubleheader on Saturday and another single game Sunday morning at 11.
Then, during a weekend break in Whitman's NWC schedule April 21-22, the Missionaries will travel to Orange, Calif., where they will take on No. 2-ranked Chapman University in a pair of doubleheaders.
"Because our conference schedule is so strong, I think having a difficult out-of-conference schedule is a great way to prepare us and help us get better," Holowaty said. "Our No. 1 goal is to win the Northwest Conference, but I also want to give our guys a No. 1 experience that other kids don't get, like going to Arizona and California and like having Eastern Connecticut fly in here."
Whitman opens its season this weekend with Saturday-Sunday doubleheaders at College of Idaho, an NAIA scholarship school, before traveling on to Chandler, Ariz., for the four-day Arizona Classic that begins on Thursday. The Whits will play two Texas schools, Concordia and Sul Ross State, and two California schools, Whittier College and Cal Lutheran, while in Arizona.
The Eastern Connecticut State series at Borleske Stadium is of particular interest for obvious reasons. The Warriors are coached by legendary Bill Holowaty, the Whitman coach's father.
In 42 seasons at Eastern Connecticut, Bill Holowaty has fashioned a .729 winning percentage and captured four NCAA Division III national titles. He has coached 40 all-Americans, sent 26 of his players into the professional ranks and is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
"This is something that, when I got the job here, it was in the back of my mind," Jared Holowaty said of the father-son coaching matchup. "It's very special to me, and I know that it is a big moment for him as well.
"No. 1, I know that he's going to want to kick my butt. And from my perspective, I want to kick his butt. But it's one of those things where 20 years from now I will be able to step back and say, ‘Wow, that was pretty amazing.'"
Bill Holowaty doubtless knows what his son is up against in building a winning baseball program at Whitman. When he took over at Eastern Connecticut State in 1968, he inherited a program that had averaged 4.3 wins over the six previous seasons.
Whitman, by comparison, hasn't had a winning season since 1982, when coach Max Seachris' Missionaries finished 19-13 overall and were second in the conference with a 12-6 record. The Whits have averaged fewer than eight victories over their past 14 seasons.
Jared Holowaty is undaunted.
"I tell recruits all of the time that there are teams and there are programs," he said. "Teams, year in and year out, are what they are, but you develop programs. And I am of the firm belief that we are developing an outstanding program.
"The steps we have taken in the last two years have been very good. I think we have a good foundation in place, and we are now working on our best recruiting class. We are at the point where we can start filling in the cracks."
Holowaty still isn't at the point where he is willing to establish a specific number of victories as a goal for this year's team. But he's optimistic nonetheless.
"Our first year, to put it bluntly, we were undermanned in skills," he said. "Last year, we couldn't take the pressure off a very good recruiting class. This year will depend on how much those freshmen develop.
"I think we have an opportunity to be a very good ball club."