Throughout the last sixth months, as Harris Field has undergone substantial renovations, more than a few curious Lewis-Clark State College baseball fans have stopped by the venerable Normal Hill ballpark to track the progress.
Some days, those observers may have seen heavy equipment shifting and balancing the park’s soil or even pouring concrete. At other times, they might have witnessed coaches and players unrolling truckloads of turf.
What they could not see, however, was the construction of an equally important project: the LC State roster.
At the same time he was toiling on Harris Field, LCSC coach Jeremiah Robbins meticulously assembled the 2015 Warriors. And it was no small task. Robbins had to restructure nearly three-quarters of his roster.
But with both projects finally complete, Robbins seems confident that his revamped roster has the ability to stake its own place in the school’s storied baseball history. And, fair or not, there is really only one way to accomplish that.
The Warriors enter the 2015 season in search of their 17th national championship, and first since 2008. They finished second at the Avista-NAIA World Series in each of Robbins’ first two years as coach.
“When you come to LC State as a coach or a player, you know the expectations,” said Robbins, whose squads have gone 92-24 in the last two seasons. “And we pay a lot of respect to the history and tradition of LC State, but we are making our legacy. We need to take the next step and we need to write our own legacy.”
Six seasons have come and gone without the Warriors winning a national championship, their longest stretch without a title since they claimed their first in 1984. To collect No. 17, the Warriors must replace 16 seniors, including two, cleanup hitter Cody Lavalli and catcher Jake Shirley, who received first team All-American recognition last season.
Lavalli, a 27th-round pick of the Angels in the Major League draft, led the Warriors with 13 home runs while Shirley, who has transitioned from player to assistant coach at LCSC, hit a team-leading .391 with 90 hits last season.
LCSC also must fill the voids left by pitchers Cody Chartrand, Michael Noteware and David Murillo, who went a combined 17-3 on the mound last season. Chartrand went to the Rangers in the 36th round of last summer’s MLB Draft while Noteware and Murillo signed free agent contracts with the Yankees and Angels, respectively.
“Obviously, when you lose a large group that did a lot of good things, you get a little bit nervous heading into this thing,” Robbins said. “But our coaching staff, I feel, did a very good job of recruiting the right guys … guys who are resilient and show the characteristics of a champion.”
The rest of the country must agree. The Warriors landed at No. 2 when the NAIA released the preseason edition of the Coaches’ Top 25 in November. Defending champion Cumberland, which bested LCSC 3-0 in the title game of last May’s World Series, topped the rankings.
The Warriors return just 12 players from the 2014 squad, which went 47-9, and only eight of those players made the World Series roster. But while small in numbers, the Warriors who are back will play big roles for LCSC this season.
Some of the key returnees include junior Ty Jackson, who, in addition to pitching, wields one of the more potent bats on the team. Then there is sophomore center fielder Raymond Pedrina, a leadoff hitter who reminds Robbins of former LCSC greats like Marvin Benard and Jason Ellison.
Fellow sophomore Michael Sexton, an infielder who is finally healthy following a wrist injury that hampered him most of last season, also returns. Robbins expects Sexton and senior pitcher Beau Kerns, who is transitioning from reliever to starter, to fill leadership roles.
While Robbins also has high expectations for the newcomers, many of whom were accomplished junior college players, he’s still not quite sure how they’ll fare in meaningful game situations.
“There are a lot of mysteries and I have no body of work for how they’ll play against another team,” Robbins said. “But who they are, how hard they work, their commitment to LC State — the best I’ve ever had. It’s been pretty impressive to watch these guys.”
Some of the newcomers expected to contribute immediately include infielder Cabe Reiten and left-handed pitcher Cameron Pongs, both transfers from NCAA Division I schools, and shortstop Max Whitt, a former junior-college standout who will likely hit in the heart of the batting order.
Robbins is also anxious to see Willie Allen, another ex-JUCO star, in a Warrior uniform. The junior is still recovering from knee surgery and won’t be available until mid-March, but he will help solidify the outfield once he does return.
“Early in the season, who plays is partly going to depend on matchups,” Robbins said. “But hopefully, some of these guys will step up and define themselves and define their position and we’ll get something set.”
Since LCSC spent the month of January, and the first few days of February, replacing the backstop and dugouts at Harris Field, the Warriors will spend the first two weeks of the season on the road. That means their home opener won’t come until Feb. 20, when they face Western Oregon, Robbins’ former club.
The Warriors’ most intriguing home series, however, may be the last. They host British Columbia, ranked 24th in the preseason poll, in a four-game tilt at the end of April. The Thunderbirds, picked to finish second to LCSC in the NAIA West Region, are a World Series-caliber team, according to Robbins.
As host, of course, the Warriors know they’ll be in the Series. That means Robbins has plenty of time to meld the 2015 Warriors into a lineup capable of accomplishing the only thing that matters on the field at LCSC: collecting No. 17.
“That’s the advantage that we have, we know where we’re going to be late May,” Robbins said. “We can try some different things, put some guys in different situations and hopefully figure it out by the time we get to May 22.”
*For a full preview, including a position-by-position breakdown, check out the official 2015 souvenir program, sold at home games beginning in February.*
Athletic Operations/Assistant SID
Lewis-Clark State College