WALLA WALLA — The Walla Walla High School baseball team has relied on a simple motto since Keith Gradwohl took over the program: care, commit and be coachable.
This year, though, the Blue Devils are adding another “C” to their mantra — competition.
With a bevy of juniors and seniors littered throughout the roster, Gradwohl hasn’t even set a starting lineup yet — although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“That’s a good problem,” he said. “We’re not sure because we think we have some pretty good depth.”
But in order for the Blue Devils to improve on a 7-15 finish from last year, Gradwohl is banking on the upperclassmen.
“We have to have a couple seniors have career years and we got to have some juniors step up,” said Gradwohl, who enters his fifth year as head coach.
The Blue Devils welcome back senior Spencer Locati, who was limited to only two at-bats last season after blowing out his knee. Locati, who was named honorable mention all-conference at third base during his sophomore year, will likely occupy the hot corner for the Blue Devils.
Rather than his on-field production however, Gradwohl is counting on Locati’s leadership.
“Kids look up to him,” Gradwohl said. “I saw it in the dugout last year when he finally got an at-bat. I saw everybody’s shoulders roll back and say, ‘Spencer’s back, we’re going to be OK.’ We’re hoping he’s back full-tilt.”
Fellow senior David Pontarolo is slated to start at second base, where he made a number of appearances last season. Gradwohl said Pontarolo may not hit for average, but he boasts a high on-base percentage because of his solid pitch selection.
Nate Sumerlin, another senior, will swing between designated hitter and first base along with Ali Buentello. Buentello is also battling a shoulder injury, which left Gradwohl unsure of what to expect from Buentello.
In the outfield, senior Junior Ruiz only adds to the Blue Devils’ roster flexibility.
“(He’s) pretty versatile — can play any outfield spot and can really scoot,” Gradwohl said.
Gradwohl also highlighted senior Robi Novak, who will see time behind the dish and at first base, for his imposing stature.
“He’s 6-foot-4, 170 (pounds) — he’s got room to grow,” Gradwohl said. “I don’t think he’s at his peak yet.”
Senior pitcher Adam Mathews, who was slated to bolster the Blue Devil rotation, is battling an elbow injury and will likely miss the beginning of the campaign. Without Mathews, Gradwohl will likely hand the No. 1 spot to senior Zach Zehner.
Zehner, who played quarterback for the Wa-Hi football team, got some invaluable reps with the Walla Walla Bruins this summer.
“He made vast improvements in football,” Gradwohl said. “(He’s a) great kid (who) throws a big-time breaking ball. We’re hoping he can step in and be our No. 1.”
Behind Zehner, juniors Blake McKinney and Trever Coronado toted the rubber on the varsity squad last year and will be called upon once again. Fellow juniors Logan Cordeiro and Kyle Barker also pitched on JV last season and will be counted on to eat up innings this year.
“Among those guys we’re hoping for four starters,” Gradwohl said. “Then when Mathews comes back, hopefully he’ll be able to jump into one of the starting roles, which will help our flexibility a little bit with the pitching staff.”
Junior Colby Watilo also got some valuable varsity experience last season and will be back behind the plate and in the outfield.
Gradwohl also mentioned juniors Kal Gray and Reid Magnaghi as guys that will compete for starting spots.
“Then you throw in the two sophomores (Anders Davidson and Ryan Kimball), who obviously can play — they’re even pushing some of the older guys,” Gradwohl said.
Gradwohl said Richland will likely be the Blue Devils biggest competition once again, but said the conference as a whole is a tough one.
Regardless, Wa-Hi will count on its depth as it opens the season with the Southridge jamboree this Saturday.
“We’ve got two kids that I wouldn’t be afraid to insert into the starting lineup at every spot.”