Big Wa-Hi influence on 2012 Warrior squad

Five players from last year's successful Blue Devil squad join the WWCC baseball roster this season.

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WALLA WALLA - Didn't get enough of Wa-Hi's 2011 baseball campaign?

The 2012 version of the Walla Walla Community College Warriors features five members of last season's Wa-Hi senior class that led the Blue Devils to a Big Nine championship, a regional championship and to the round of 16 at the state playoffs last season.

The five WWCC freshmen - all-state pitcher Drew Christina, second team all-state pitcher Jake Campeau, catcher Connor Holbrook, all-state infielder Kevin Toon and first baseman Brett Christina - are part of a 20-strong incoming class which joins eight returning sophomores from a Warrior club that went 30-16 in 2011 and was one win away from an NWAACC East Region tournament championship and a berth to the NWAACC playoffs.

"They (Wa-Hi) won the league for the first time in probably 14 years and they made it to regionals and had a great year and it was really because of a strong senior class," third-year WWCC coach Dave Meliah, a Walla Walla native and DeSales graduate, said. "So it's nice to keep those local guys here when they're talented enough to help you win."

Meliah said he had been familiar with most of the seniors on that Wa-Hi team from an early age. Meliah's baseball coach at DeSales, Kim Cox, coached some of them through Little League and Meliah first began observing them then.

"It's exciting to have local guys here just because you're going to have more people come up to the games," Meliah said. "You're going to have more fans in the crowd when you have their families from right here in town, so it should be fun to have a little bit more local flavor to the roster this year."

As is often the case in community college baseball, however, turnover took a bite out of last season's roster, as the Warriors graduated or transferred much of the offensive firepower that led them to an NWAACC-leading .327 batting average and 515 hits, also an NWAACC best.

"We're just not going to hit like we did last year," Meliah said. "That's a one-every-five-or-six-year team. We broke a bunch of school records and had a bunch of individuals setting records - it was pretty unique. When you hit almost .330 as a team that's pretty special.

"I think we'll be solid offensively," he said. "We'll probably play a little more small ball. We have a little bit better team speed and we'll try and get guys into scoring position any way we can and use the two-out knock a little more. I don't think we'll be driving the ball out of the yard as much as we did last year, but our defense from what we've seen in these five weeks of practice has been pretty good."

Outielder Mike Paulson, a Sammamish, Wash., native, led the returning bats with a .307 average over 137 at bats, two home runs and 25 RBIs last season and will probably see action in the middle of the lineup again this season.

Sophomores Jared Jordan and Kasey Knigge make up the rest of the Warriors' returning fire power.

"We can win games, it's a different team, though," Paulson, who is going to New Mexico State on a baseball scholarship this fall, said. "Last year we used to go out there and just be able to slug with anybody. Bottom of the ninth, down by a run and we'd be out there swinging away. This year, our team is a lot more scrappier so we're going to be in a lot of tight ball games.

"I think the guys we have are going to be able to get it done, it's just a matter of coming together as a team once the season starts and being able to be faced with adversity and still pull wins out," Paulson said.

Jordan, an infielder and pitcher, batted .293 and racked up 28 RBI and two homers in 140 appearances at the plate. Knigge hit .284 and had 24 RBIs in 134 appearances.

"Those three guys (Paulson, Knigge and Jordan) really are guys that have played at this level already, they had success last year, they all work hard and they're good teammates as well," Meliah said, "so those are guys that we are counting on offensively this year."

Despite fall practices, winter workouts and now spring practices, Meliah said the lineup is still fluid as the first game nears, thanks to a rash of injuries. In all, there are four players injured or limited by injuries who would see significant time.

Paulson began to suffer tendenitis through the middle of January and had to take some time to rehab, and is now working back into the lineup on the mound, but will not be starting yet.

Toon will redshirt his freshman season after a summer shoulder surgery, a procedure Meliah said he knew of in advance.

Wyatt Whitten, a pitcher and second baseman out of Pendleton, is limited with a shoulder injury.

Finally, Richland's Kenton Brunson will be out for the first four-to-six weeks with an elbow injury.

Paulson said the injuries don't change the team's goals, which are to be as successful, if not more, as last year's team.

"It comes down to if can you stay healthy," Meliah said. "We've had the injury bug this year worse than I've ever seen at this level, so we're trying to get guys back healthy by league time, but the goals are the same."

Walla Walla lost its top four pitchers to graduation or transfer, but lefties Paulson and Joe Arlt should help ease the Warriors into its new rotation.

Paulson holds the lowest ERA of the returners with a 2.88 over five starts and 40 innings pitched. He also recorded a team-high two shutouts last season.

Arlt, who holds the distinction of being the only Warrior to bat 1.000 last season (a single in his only appearance at the plate), posted a 4.56 ERA in nine starts and 51 innings pitched.

Connor Lawhead pitched a 4.20 ERA in 15 innings of relief and Ryan James, also a Wa-Hi graduate, posted a 7.20 ERA in five innings of work to round out the returning bullpen. Both Lawhead and James will likely move to starting roles through the season, Meliah said.

"Ryan (James) got a lot better from last year and he'll get some at bats too," Meliah said.

Right-hander Campeau (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) impressed the coaching staff with his consistency, if not power, and earned a start against Prairie Baseball Academy in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday.

"Jake, he's earned it for sure," Meliah said, while emphasizing he would be rotating through pitchers in non-conference games. "He's got a chance to be a powerful thrower. I wouldn't say right now he is - when I think of powerful I think of guys hitting 90, and he's not to that point yet - but he's got the potential to get there."

Meliah said he felt the strength of this year's roster will be team defense, and Campeau's ability to throw strikes and force contact should play well in that system.

"(I'm) definitely excited," Campeau said. "Coming and being able to get my first start on the first day is pretty exciting. The coaches have shown confidence in me to be able to throw strikes and that's exactly what I look to do."

Eight of the 15 pitchers on WWCC's lineup are listed at other positions as well, something Meliah said is advantageous compared to teams with bullpens that only pitch.

"I like to have guys that can play anywhere," Meliah said. "It keeps guys motivated that if they aren't getting it done in one spot, they can get it done in another."

Meliah also said it gives him a chance to keep their bats in the lineup when they weren't throwing.

Meliah has not determined who will take on closer duties yet, and said that he will have to make that decision as the season progresses.

The Warriors do not have a designated hit decided upon either, but with so many pitchers having hot bats, that position will probably fluctuate as the lineup changes.

With the majority of the roster from the Northwest, right-handed pitcher Kalani Omoto is the only Warrior not from the Northwest. In fact, the 6-foot-3 Omoto is not from the contiguous United State, he hails from Kapolei, Hawaii.

The Warriors open play Saturday with a doubleheader against the Prairie Baseball Academy from Lethbridge, Alberta, at 11 a.m. Prairie is already nine games into its season and carries a 3-6 record into the match.

Miles Community College (out of Miles City, Mont.) provides WWCC's opposition Sunday at 11 p.m. in another doubleheader. Miles has also started its season and will have played 10 games after facing Blue Mountain Community College Saturday. As of now, the Pioneers are 2-6.

Arlt will get the nod to start for Saturday's opener against Prairie, while Knigge and Lawhead will see starting action for Sunday's games.

"They're both good teams," Meliah said of his weekend opponents. "They've both been good teams and they've both been down here in the past. They're going to do all the little things right and play hard. I expect four pretty well played games and pretty competitive games."

"They've already got some of those early season bumps out of the way and so it will be a good test for us," Meliah said. "Win or lose there will be a lot for us to get better at. Whether we go 4-0 or 0-4, we still have a ton to improve upon for the months coming up."

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