WALLA WALLA — The competitor in Dave Meliah yearns for an Eastern Region title and a return to the NWAACC Championships for the first time since 2007 when he was an assistant coach and Mike Cummins was in charge of Walla Walla Community College’s baseball fortunes.
But the realist recognizes that results this spring similar to what Meliah has achieved in his first three seasons as the Warriors head coach is a worthy goal.
“Your goal every season is to win the NWAACC championship, and I feel like we have the talent to do that,” Meliah said as he assessed his 2013 roster. “And you always have mixed feelings when the season ends and you haven’t reached the goal you’ve been working toward for eight or nine months.
“Sure, we want to win the East, the playoffs and the championship,” he continued. “We’re not shy about those goals because there’s no point in that. And at the end of the year we will see, but I’m not the type of guy who thinks either you do all of those things or it was a terrible year.
“I’m not at all disappointed in how we have done these last three years. We’re winning a lot of games here and we’re moving a lot of guys on to the four-year level, and that’s the most important thing. Whatever happens in between is what happens.”
Meliah’s baseball resume includes four high school state championships at DeSales, a successful collegiate career at WWCC and the University of San Francisco and a six-year professional career that saw him climb as high as Triple-A before retiring in 2003.
He returned home, served seven years as a WWCC assistant coach and was promoted to the head coaching position in 2010.
After posting a 23-23 record in his first season at the helm, Meliah’s teams finished 30-16 in 2011 and 29-19 last spring. That’s a .586 winning percentage, which in baseball parlance is nothing to sneeze at.
The Warriors also qualified for the Eastern Region playoffs all three years, and they came within one victory of qualifying for the NWAACC Championship the last two years.
Of the seven sophomores on last year’s roster, shortstop Jared Jordan and closer Connor Lawhead will be the toughest to replace, Meliah said. Jordan batted .273, slammed four home runs and drove in a team-high 32 runs while Lawhead posted a 2.27 earned run average and registered a team-high six saves.
Both were named to the all-Eastern Region first team.
“We didn’t have a big sophomore class,” Meliah said.
That won’t be the case this year. The 2013 Warriors roster features 11 returning players plus a couple of redshirts.
Among them are catcher Jarrod Turner, designated hitter Shane Dixon and starting pitching Drew Christina, who were all-East first-team selections as freshmen, and outfielder Cody Poznanski, a second-team pick.
Turner led the Warriors in hitting with a .318 average, two home runs and 27 RBIs. Dixon, who saw time in the field at first and third base, was a .311 hitter with one home run and 18 RBIs. Christina, the team’s ace, posted a 10-2 record, a 2.38 earned run average and 75 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings pitched. And Poznanski was a .278 hitter who scored a team-high 33 runs and led the Warriors in stolen bases as well with 11.
“Jarrod will be the power in the middle of our lineup,” Meliah said of Turner. “Shane (Dixon) is a solid all-around player who played all over the field for us, but hitting is absolutely his strength. Drew (Christina) was the best guy in our rotation all year long. And Cody (Poznanski) is a very intelligent player who gives us some speed and will be at or near the top of our batting order.”
It will be up to Turner and Poznanski to provide the team with leadership, the coach said.
“Those are two guys who can take over if need be,” Meliah said. “If a player’s voice is needed to be heard, it’s nice to have guys who have that ability.”
The other returning players are infielders Tony Salas and Brett Christina, outfielder Ryan Rambur and pitchers Jake Campeau, Kalani Omoto, Nick Brockman and Conner Holbrook. Holbrook will also serve as the team’s backup catcher.
Salas, who divided time between first and third base, hit .273 as a freshman, and Brett Christina, a first baseman, hit .311 last year in a limited role. Rambur managed just a .196 average in 92 at-bats, but he slugged two homers, two doubles and knocked in 23 runs.
“Tony had a pretty good freshman year but didn’t get all-league,” Meliah said of Salas, “But he is one of our better left-handed hitters and we expect him to grow off that freshman season.
“Brett (Christina) is another guy who has improved a lot from last year and will have a chance to get quite a few at-bats as the DH and at first base. Ryan (Rambur) had an up-and-down freshman season, but we’re looking for him build up some of the things he learned as a freshman.”
Campeau began last season in the Warriors’ starting rotation but was in the bullpen by the time it ended. Omoto and Brockman also pitched out of the pen.
“Jake went through some growing pains as a freshman,” Meliah said of Campeau. “But he has had an incredible fall, winter and early spring, and I think it is going to pay off for him big time. I feel like he is ready to go, that he wants the ball and that he has something to prove.
“With Drew and Jake, we have a couple of Wa-Hi kids who give us a lefty (Christina) and righty (Campeau) in our rotation.”
Omoto was usually one of the first relievers to enter a game last year and he will fill a similar role in 2013, Meliah said. Brockman has closer potential if he can harness his high-octane fastball and hard slider, the coach added.
The two players who redshirted last season are middle infielder Kevin Toon, another Wa-Hi product, and outfielder Pete Bakker from Lewiston. Toon, who was the Big Nine Conference’s Most Valuable Player his senior season, injured his shoulder the summer after graduating from high school and sat out all of last season. Bakker didn’t enroll at WWCC until winter quarter and the coaching staff decided to hold him out last spring as well.
“Kevin will get a chance to start some games in preseason and we will see how he does,” Meliah said of Toon. “He’s definitely going to get his chance. Pete (Bakker) is another left-handed bat who will probably be in more of a DH role.”
Juan Munoz of Boise, another left-handed pitcher, is a transfer from Arizona Western who joins the team this spring.
A big group of 21 first-year freshmen round out Meliah’s 35-player roster.
“I feel like we had a great recruiting year,” Meliah said. “It’s probably our best year so far.”
The group includes two more local products, former Blue Devils Mo Handcox, an outfielder, and Josh Eggers, a second baseman.
“Mo is finally able to devote all of his time to baseball,” Meliah said of Handcox. “He was such a great three-sport athlete at Wa-Hi, now we get to see him blossom. I expect he will get some starts in the outfield for us early in the season.
“And Josh (Eggers) is probably one of our best base runners. He is very aggressive, very quick. He’s getting better offensively and defensively and is becoming a guy who will be hard to keep off the field.”
Another freshmen who is hard not to notice is shortstop Corey Morris of Richland.
“He was Mr. Everything in high school,” Meliah said of Morris. “He was all-state a couple of years but was overlooked by the bigger schools because of his size. He’s not very big, but he is one of those guys who is just a baseball player who plays hard and smart and will probably start at shortstop for us and hit at the top of the order.”
The Warriors open the season at home this weekend with doubleheaders against Centralia Saturday and the Prairie Baseball Academy Sunday, with action getting underway at 11 a.m. both days.
Walla Walla plays its first 16 games, all of them non-leaguers, at home before opening Eastern Region play March 27 with a doubleheader at Wenatchee.