WALLA WALLA - There is only so much unabashed optimism a coach can project when his 27-man roster includes just one senior and a sprinkling of two or three juniors.
But Jared Holowaty likes what he sees when scanning his lineup on the eve of year three in a rebuilding project aimed at restoring some luster to the Whitman College baseball program.
"Our pitching staff is better and much deeper than it was a year ago, and we've got a fighting chance to be a good offensive club," Holowaty said.
"The key to this season is the extent to which our sophomore class has developed and learned from a year ago."
Holowaty, who welcomed just his second recruiting class to campus last fall, has 12 sophomores on his roster who will be complemented by 11 first-year players.
Several of his returning sophomores were forced into key starting roles as rookies last spring, when the Missionaries often had just two seniors on the field on game day. Options were limited in that the roster listed just one junior and two sophomores.
"It came as no surprise, but our lack of experience last season was definitely a limiting factor," Holowaty said. "We had a lot of guys fresh out of high school who were still learning how to play college baseball.
"The difference this spring is that we have a lot more players who have been through at least one season of college ball," Holowaty added. "Our hope is that our returning sophomores can carry the load this spring. That alone will take the pressure off what we think is another very good freshmen class."
Whitman picked off four victories in the Northwest Conference last season and climbed from ninth to eighth in the final standings. The Whits finished 5-30 overall.
After playing its first eight games on the road, Whitman opens its home schedule Feb. 24-26 when Eastern Connecticut State comes to Borleske Stadium for a four-game series. The Warriors are coached by Bill Holowaty (Jared's father), now in his 43rd season at the helm of Eastern Connecticut's program.
Jared Holowaty, a two-year captain and four-year starter while playing for his father, was a senior on the Eastern Connecticut team that captured the 2002 NCAA Division III national championship.
Junior Justin Weeks, senior Jake Nelson and sophomore Aaron Cohen - a trio that started all but eight games on the mound for Whitman last season - are back to anchor a pitching staff that should be much deeper and experienced than a year ago.
Weeks, a right-hander, emerged as the staff ace last spring, making eight starts and winning three games, including complete-game victories over Lewis & Clark and Pacific Lutheran.
"Justin was our best pitcher last season, and his competitive nature was at the heart of his success," Holowaty said. "That's his primary asset - his competitive nature. He wants to be on the mound for every inning and throw every pitch."
Nelson, a lefty, was in his first season at Whitman last spring after playing two seasons at Walla Walla Community College.
Cohen, a hard-throwing right-hander, is another strong candidate for a starter's spot, even though he struggled through a freshman season hamstrung by lack of control. He spent the summer developing his skills in a collegiate league in Maine.
Others candidates for starting roles on the mound are sophomore Dakota Matherly and freshmen Will Thompson, Spencer Hobson and Griffin Sutich. Matherly made 16 appearances, including three starts, a year ago as a college rookie.
Two of the three freshmen hurlers, Hobson and Sutich, are lefties.
Hurlers in the bullpen mix include sophomores Sterling Spilinek, Tristan Gavin and Brett Lambert. Spilinek, another left-hander, made 16 relief appearances a year go. Lambert, a hard-throwing right-hander, missed last season because of injury while Gavin made it into 14 games in relief.
Rounding out the pitching staff are junior Tyler Grisdale, who threw eight innings of relief last season, and freshmen Jack Coppinger, Eli Mathieu and Cody Phillips. Mathieu and Phillips also double as infielders.
Look for sophomores Cameron Young, Chris Andrews and Casey Minnick to stake claims around the infield while a fourth sophomore, Jimmy Madden, holds down the catcher's spot. All four should make major contributions at the plate.
Young solidified the infield last season, earning all-NWC honorable mention recognition at shortstop. Batting in the three hole, he hit .319 in 24 conference games (.284 overall).
Young, who homered in his first college game, finished the season with the second-most hits on the team. He twice fell a home run short of hitting for the cycle.
"Cam was playing the most challenging defensive position on the field as a freshman, and he came within one vote of earning second-team all-conference honors," Holowaty said.
Madden, who came to Whitman as an outfielder, was switched to the catcher's spot early in the season.
"Jimmy has a strong arm behind the plate, which is what it takes to control the other team's running game," Holowaty said. "Moving Jimmy to catcher was a lot to ask, but he handled it and continued to hit leadoff for us."
Andrews hit .256 last season in an infield utility role but figures to be the regular second baseman this spring.
"We'd like to hit Chris in the two hole," Holowaty said. "He's a good athlete who can bunt, put the ball in play and run. He's a good small-ball guy."
When he's not pitching, Cohen will play either at third base or in the outfield. He hit .307 last season with 10 doubles and two home runs.
Other possibilities at third base are sophomore Chris Konolige and freshman MacLean Harned.
Holowaty expects to use both Minnick and freshman Peter Valentine in a rotation at first base and designated hitter.
Minnick, who clubbed nine doubles last season, is a "strong young man who was born to hit," Holowaty said. "Valentine also has a lot of pop in his bat. He starts the season as one of our best hitters, and he could be our best hitter by the end of the season."
While further down the depth chart as a pitcher, Mathieu could see time at the corner infield positions, or at designated hitter, Holowaty said. "Eli is a big, strong kid who can hit."
And freshman Peter Carmichael is a "feisty hitter" who adds more depth at second base.
Sophomore Kyle Buckham, who hit .263 last season, returns as the starting center fielder while sophomore Kyle Moyes in left and Cohen in right are the incumbents at the two corner spots.
"If everyone stays healthy, there is a good chance that all of our returning sophomores can hit for a higher average this spring," Holowaty said.
Valentine can also play in the outfield. Other outfield options are first-year sophomore Connor Madden and freshman Jonny Chow.
Season opens Saturday
WALLA WALLA - The Whitman College baseball team launches its 2012 season this weekend with a pair of doubleheaders against NAIA-affiliated College of Idaho in Caldwell.
Saturday's twin bill calls for two nine-inning games, starting at 10 a.m. Sunday's first game, also nine innings, is slated for 11 a.m., with a seven-inning game to follow.
College of Idaho, which has advanced to the postseason for 25 consecutive years, opened its season last week at the NAIA Desert Classic in Arizona, splitting four games.
The Coyotes swept a four-game series from Whitman last February at a decidedly chilly Borleske Stadium.
The weekend forecast for the Caldwell area calls for daytime highs ranging from the mid-40s to low-50s with partly cloudy skies and light winds.
College of Idaho, which was part of the Northwest Conference from its formation in 1926 through 1978, has been playing Whitman in baseball since 1920s.
Records available from 1934 onward show Whitman leading the all-time series by a 134-102 margin, although the Coyotes have won the last 12 meetings. Whitman's last victory was a 5-4 triumph in game two of a doubleheader in 1995.