Even on a sunny late winter afternoon, Titan head baseball coach Josh Blunt is worried about the rain.
In his office, Blunt repeatedly checks the weather forecast on his phone. The sun is shining through the windows and refracting through the crystal third-place trophies on his shelf, but Blunt isn’t convinced the weather will hold. He’s already canceled a week of practices and is weighing canceling the one scheduled for that afternoon.
The Northwest’s late winter deluge has reduced the field on Lane’s campus to a muddy swamp. As a result, the Titans spent their winter practicing at Sheldon or Willamette High Schools and on the artificial turf at the Willamalane facilities in Springfield.
“Oregon weather makes it tough to prepare for the season,” Blunt said. “Especially with facilities like ours that can’t handle the rain.”
In his seven seasons in Eugene, Blunt has tallied a 183-156 record and led the Titans to the playoffs the last five seasons. But last season’s Titans struggled against non-conference opponents and posted their first losing season under Blunt’s tenure–though they still snuck into the playoffs with a strong late-season conference push.
Blunt says this year’s roster is among the strongest he’s coached. He singled out redshirt freshman catcher Matt Dallas as “a special player” and believes he will be a top prospect for next year’s major league draft. Dallas attended high school in Modesto, California, where he recorded a .468 batting average and two MVP awards in his two years of varsity baseball. In addition to his skills as a catcher, Dallas also played outfield, second base and even threw a no-hitter as a pitcher in 2017.
Dallas will play an immediate role handling the Titans’ pitching staff, anchored by left-hander Riley Howard and right-hander Donovan Baldocchi, though Baldocchi will miss several weeks due to a thumb injury. Seven pitchers from last year’s roster are returning, bolstering Blunt’s optimism.
“We’ve got a lot of sophomores coming back who are ready to step up and get us back on track,” Blunt added.
Blunt’s talents as a recruiter are a double-edged sword for the Titans. While Blunt and his Oregon-grown coaching staff have a keen eye for untapped talent, that talent inevitably gets noticed by bigger schools and even professional teams. Nine players from last year’s Titans now play for Division I schools; Titan alumnus Keynan Middleton is a star relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels.
“That’s part of the challenge of junior college baseball,” Blunt said. “You don’t get to keep your guys for four years.”
Blunt doesn’t take all the credit for the Titans’ recruiting success. The baseball program at Lane, according to Blunt, has built a strong reputation for developing young players in spite of its “limited facilities and resources.”
With nine true freshman on the roster, the Titans–tied for ninth in NWAC preseason polls–are eager to prove themselves against stiff NWAC competition. The Titans were scheduled to open their season on Feb. 23 and 24 against ninth-ranked Everett and third-ranked Yakima Valley before rain and snow canceled baseball games all over the Northwest.
“It’s tough to lose early season matches against competition like that,” Blunt said. “It gives you an idea of where your team is at right at the start of the season.”
If Blunt and his team are worried about losing playing time against strong competition, their season schedule should relieve them. The Titans have 16 games against ranked non-conference opponents, including early season series against top-ranked Lower Columbia and #2 Edmonds. The Titans also have a pair of series each against ranked NWAC South rivals #4 Linn-Benton and #10 Mt. Hood.
Weather permitting, the Titans will start their season against Big Bend on March 2.