WALLA WALLA - For the past two seasons Wa-Hi' baseball team's mantra has been, "We will work hard."
That work ethic paid off in a big way last season as the Blue Devils won the Columbia Basin Big Nine Conference regular season title with an 11-1 league record and took a regional championship over the Greater Spokane League's Gonzaga Prep before falling to Auburn Riverside, 4-3, in the opening round of the state playoffs and finishing the season at 20-7 overall. It was the first CBBN title for Wa-Hi since 1996 and the season earned the Blue Devils many accolades, including 4A coach of the year award for Wa-Hi coach Keith Gradwohl.
But Gradwohl has a new motto in mind for this season.
Defend the title, practice good team defense and defend the plate with two strikes.
But the fact that the Blue Devils return just two batters who saw significant at-bats last season and have only eight innings of returning varsity experience on the mound are two of Wa-Hi's issues. And when combined with new bat standards designed to reduce off-the-bat ball speeds means the latter two goals - team defense and aggressive batting late into the count - are going to be key if the Devils are going to achieve the former goal.
"We had a good year last year, but this is a new breed of kids and they're working their chops off to try and defend the title," Gradwohl said.
But despite last year's massive senior class (Wa-Hi graduated 11 seniors in all) moving on, Gradwohl is confident the Blue Devils will at least retool, if not reload.
"I think one of our strengths is these kids know how to play," Gradwohl said. "They've been really well coached in the summer (American Legion baseball), and we've got six kids back from varsity that we feel got good coaching last spring. Other than just getting reps to break out the winter kinks, they know how to play. These kids are baseball savvy - we're just polishing right now.
The biggest question mark for the Devils this spring is on the mound. All-staters Drew Christina and Jake Campeau graduated and are throwing for Walla Walla Community College this season. Seniors Michael Lesmeister and Will Parnicky are the only pitchers who saw varsity time last season.
"We're definitely going to be green on the hill, let's face it," Gradwohl said. "We've got a few varsity innings back, but really no Big Nine innings back.
"But they're kids that have pitched," Gradwohl said of his mound staff. "They pitched over the summer, they pitched on the JV - it's not like we're trying to make pitchers out of them. We've got about eight or nine pitchers on the team and we'll be able to find some strong starters out of those kids, I know we will."
Of the pitchers on the varsity roster, Lesmeister, Parnicky, junior Luke Reardon and sophomores Spencer Locati and Adam Mathews will likely see time on the mound, Gradwohl said after evaluating them at a scrimmage Saturday.
The pitchers will likely benefit from new BBCOR bat standards designed to make composite and aluminum bats perform more like wooden bats. BBCOR, which stands for Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution (in layman's terms: how much the bat flexes when contact is made with a baseball), was adapted by the NCAA last season to help prevent injuries from balls which could travel at speeds up to 115 miles per hour when launched off bats under previous standards and could seriously injure pitchers and other infielders.
In addition to making the game safer, the slower bats should play into the Blue Devils' small ball philosophy this season on both offense and defense.
"With the new BBCOR bats, we're working really hard on handling the bat, bunting, hit-and-runs, and running the bases," Gradwohl said. "We've got some kids that can really run, so we may have to play some small ball. We're not going to be able to sit back and wait for the three-run bomb anymore."
The new bats make Murr Field, already a big park, even bigger for batters, and friendlier for pitchers, Gradwohl said.
"It's a pretty big park and it plays big because there's always a little bit of a breeze blowing in." Gradwohl said of the Blue Devils' home field. "Our kids are used to that. We always say centerfield at Murr is where fly balls go to die, and we've got some kids that can run and pick it."
Senior centerfielder Moe Handcox and his still-recovering elbow should be key in the outfield and in batter's box for the revamped Devils.
"Moe Handcox can really play," Gradwohl said. "You stick him out there (in centerfield) and he covers a lot of area. We say, ‘Get them to hit the ball up the middle and up in the air,' and he'll run and get it."
The new bats should help Handcox, a three-sport athlete who committed to play football for Central Washington University recently, too. What might have been a 400-foot home run with last year's bats will just be a long fly, leading to more balls to catch for the speedy outfielder. But Handcox wasn't all that excited about using the new bats himself.
"I don't like them that much," Handcox, who led off for the Blue Devils last season and will reprise that role again, said. "Now we just have to focus on bunting, playing small ball and capitalizing on mistakes by the pitcher. Work the gaps (between fielders), work the (foul) lines."
Handcox batted .333 last season in 96 at-bats - just shy of the .347 team average - and stole eight bases. The righty is still recovering from a fractured bone and a torn ligament in his throwing elbow suffered during the football season, but said it doesn't affect his swing and shouldn't affect his throw much longer.
"Hopefully this will be the first season I get to finish (this year)," Handcox, who estimated the elbow was at about 80 percent strength, said. "I ended early in football and in basketball I didn't get to start until halfway through because of my injury."
Senior Taylor Lemke is the only other returner that saw significant at-bats last season. He batted .263 in 57 appearances and figures to start at either catcher or first base.
"He played a lot at first base and DH last year," Gradwohl said. "He should be one of our offensive weapons this year."
Gradwohl also said Lesmeister, who struggled at the plate last season posting a .136 average in 22 at-bats, should be improved and an offensive threat this season.
"He's big, he's strong, he's fast and he's got a little pop - a little power." Gradwohl said of Lesmeister.
Five-foot-9 senior Josh Eggers, the team's resident speedster, will move to either shortstop or second base this season after seeing most of his action last season as a pinch runner. In 2011 he racked up 13 steals and batted .333 in 21 chances.
"He's (Eggers) an extremely aggressive kid," Gradwohl said. "Real fast. He's looking to get some time at middle infielder."
Parnicky should contend for an infield spot as well. He saw time at shortstop last season and batted .286 in limited attempts.
The Blue Devils should have the rest of the starting lineup hammered out after a pair of 3-inning games at a jamboree hosted by Southridge in Kennewick Saturday. Wa-Hi starts play at 11 a.m. and faces Sunnyside and Hanford.
Wa-Hi goes live Tuesday at Pendleton at 4 p.m. The Blue Devils host Hermiston Saturday, March 17, for their home opener.
Player Year Position
Anthony Arellano 11 OF
Daniel Camacho 11 OF
Josh Eggers 12 2B/SS
Luke Flippo 11 OF
Keltan Fulmer 11 C/OF
Cody Furstenberg 12 C/UTL
Moe Handcox 12 CF
Zane Henderson 11 1B/OF
Daniel Lake 11 OF/P
Taylor Lemke 12 C/1B
Michael Lesmeister 12 P/1B
Spencer Locati 10 P/UTL
Adam Matthews 10 P/INF
Jarrod Needham 11 SS/P
Will Parnicky 12 SS/2B/P
Luke Reardon 11 P/3B
Julian Zamora 11 2B/UTL