In 2013, a talented Lane baseball team missed a spot in the Northwest Athletic Association playoffs by just two games.
Only six players returned from last year’s squad, and the Titans will have some big shoes to fill with the loss of South Region All-Stars, Shaun Boehm, Matt Taylor and Nic Coffman.
However, thanks to the addition of a talented freshman class and several key transfer players, this year’s Titans have a chance to take a step forward from where last year’s left off.
Lane head coach Josh Blunt said that the team will employ more small-ball play this season. “The one thing that we’re going to have this year, is we’re going to run really, really well,” Blunt said. “We were big last year, and physical. This year it’s kind of the opposite – which was the gameplan. To get faster in a wooden bat league.”
The Titans will start the season on Feb. 28 when taking on Bellevue College at Wilsonville High School.
Last year, the Titans were led by a top-heavy, star-studded pitching rotation that featured four NWAACC South Region All-Stars in Coffman, Colben McGuire and Jake Lessel, as well as Keynan Middleton, who was selected in the third round of last year’s Major League Baseball draft.
This year, the Titans boast a much deeper staff.
“I think we’re ten-to-twelve guys deep on the mound this year, and oddly enough there is not a huge difference between our tenth, eleventh, twelfth guy and our first guy,” Blunt said. “I think that’s the strength of our pitching staff.”
In the Titans’ first doubleheader of the season versus Bellevue Community College on Feb. 28, Blunt plans to start sophomore Parker Sherrell in the first game and sophomore transfer Jeff Hardy in the second.
Sherrel pitched in 19 games for the Titans during the 2012 season before redshirting last year, and Hardy transferred from University of Nevada, where he threw just ten innings out of the Wolfpack’s bullpen during the 2013 season.
“Hardy has some good stuff. I think that he could end up being our ace,” Titan sophomore shortstop Tucker Campbell said. “He’s a power pitcher. He’s got a good fastball and slider and I think he’s really going to step up and take over.”
Eric Rauro, a sophomore reliever who pitched five games last year, is expected to jump into the starting rotation this season for Lane. Malik Evans, a freshman from Springfield High School is also expected to start for the Titans.
Jared Priestly, a right handed sophomore who transferred from the University of Oregon after fall term, will start the season in the bullpen, but could make big contributions as a starter when the Titans start South Region play later this spring.
Jackson Bertsch, a freshman from nearby Pleasant Hill High School, will also begin the season in a relief role, but has the potential to play a big role for the Titans, once regional play begins, according to Blunt.
“Personally, I think he has a chance to pitch at the Pac-12 level,” Blunt said. “Jackson’s going to be a really good draft pick at some point.”
Bertsch threw 72 innings including four complete games during his senior year of high school, so Blunt decided to shut down Bertsch’s throwing training in the fall in order to give him rest and avoid injury.
“It might take a little while to get him going, but by the time we get to, hopefully, the NWAACC tournament, he will be the guy for us,” Blunt said.
Freshman Travis Boggs will begin the season as the Titans’ closer. “He’s a guy who kind of surprised people,” Blunt said. “He’s a plus-athlete and he throws strikes.”
Shane Quarterly, a right handed freshman, could also be in the mix for the closing role by the end of the season.
No team in the NWAACC boasts a better duo of catchers than the Titans.
Last year’s starter, Cody Chagnon, has graduated, but the Titans will replace him with freshman Kyle Beam and sophomore Colby Rice.
“In my seventeen years of coaching, this is the best tandem of catchers I have ever had,” Blunt said. “It’s pretty rare to have a Division I and Division II caliber catcher on the same team at this level, it just doesn’t happen.”
Rice played at Western Nevada College last year and has already committed to play at the Division II level for Western Oregon University next season.
Although Beam doesn’t have the college catching experience that Rice does, Blunt said that he has more upside offensively.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Blunt said. “Kyle will be on a draft board coming up soon.”
Blunt has not declared who the starting catcher will be, and said that starting duties will most likely be split in half, depending on who the Titans’ starting pitcher is each game.
Sophomore Jarren Goddard will be the Titans’ starting first baseman, and Blunt said he expects him to have a humongous year.
Goddard was the Titans’ backup catcher last season and hit two homers and drove in 12 runs in just 52 plate appearances, all while adapting to the difficulties of playing catcher at the college level.
“I sat down with Jarren in June and said, ‘hey, we need to make the transition to get you over to first,’ and he did so without hesitation. It’s paid off huge for him,” Blunt said.
Goddard said that the position swap has made things easier for him in the batter’s box.
“Playing first makes it a lot easier to focus on my at-bats instead of calling the game behind the plate.” He said.
Sophomore Isaias Zerufael played in 15 games last season, mostly at shortstop, but he’ll be sliding over to second base this season.
“He’s just a nice, steady, everyday player,” Blunt said. “I think he’s our best base runner and he’s made some nice jumps offensively, although we don’t really need him to hit.”
Campbell, a sophomore transfer from Linfield College will be the Titans’ everyday shortstop this season and will also fill a huge leadership role for a team with few returning players.
“He is the type of guy that you want to touch the baseball,” Blunt said. “He’s just such a steady player and he’s not flashy by any means.”
Blunt said that Campbell could be hitting in the fourth or fifth spot in the Titans’ lineup this season.
With the Titans’ double-play combination set in stone with Zerufael and Campbell, sophomore Eric Long, a shortstop last season, will be making the move to third base.
Long is a solid defensive player who made some big plays when called on last year for the Titans, although he hit just .130 in 23 plate appearances.
However, Blunt said that Long made great strides in the offseason, specifically in the weight room, and is slated to be the Titans’ everyday leadoff hitter this season.
The Titans return no starting outfielders from last year’s team, but have a familiar face who will provide a huge boost this season with sophomore centerfielder Spencer Smith.
“He should be one of the top two or three players in the NWAACC this year,” Blunt said. “Spencer would have been our first or second best player last year. He’s one of the only kids I’ve ever coached who maximizes every second of every day.”
Smith played for the Titans during the 2012 season and was named an NWAACC Southern Region All-Star, before using his redshirt year last season while he was taking classes at both Lane and University of Oregon.
“Having a guy like Spencer is huge,” Sherrell said. “Being a third year guy, he brings a lot of energy to the group and just that team structure we need.”
The Titans will platoon players in both of the corner outfield spots.
Darin Nelson, who transferred to Lane after playing last season at Linn-Benton Community College where he hit .235 in five games, will split time in left field with freshman Forrest Garcia.
Blake Montague, a third year player who was a starting infielder for the Titans in 2012, will fill the right field spot, along with Robert Strys, a sophomore who played football at Linfield College last year.
The Titans have plenty of options to fill their designated hitter slot. Sophomore Konner Reddick was second on the team in batting average at .323 last season and spent most of his time at first base and as pitcher. This season he will fill a greater role on the mound for the Titans, but Blunt can still keep one of his strongest bats in the lineup by dropping him in the Designated Hitter slot on days that he doesn’t pitch.
Blunt said that Kyle Watson, a left-handed freshman from Thurston High School, will also get some at-bats in the Designated Hitter role.