You Gotta Like These Kids!
SPOKANE, Wash. – Coming off of the only 100-loss season in franchise history in 1985, the 1986 San Francisco Giants turned to a bunch of rookies in 1986 and sold their fans on "You gotta like these kids!"
You would forgive Whitworth baseball fans for adopting the same slogan in 2012. During a breakthrough season that has included the team's first-ever bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, first post-season appearance of any kind in 20 years and first Northwest Conference title since 1991, the Pirates have often fielded a starting lineup that includes seven freshmen and sophomores.
Fielding such a young lineup throughout the season was not an issue for Whitworth head coach Dan Ramsay, who caused raised eyebrows himself when he was hired as Whitworth's head coach at the advanced age of 22 four seasons ago.
"Our coaching staff has always had the mindset that we will play our best nine and if five or six of them happen to be freshman, then so be it." Ramsay said. "Fortunately we have some strong veteran players who help calm the nerves of our younger guys and our coaching staff does a good job of simulating game-like pressure in practice situations. If you're good, you're good, regardless of how old you are."
Leading the youth movement is sophomore outfielder Tyler Pfeffer, who topped the Northwest Conference in home runs, runs-batted-in, runs scored and slugging percentage while earning First Team All-NWC honors this season. Fellow sophomore Gerhard Muelheims has started every game at second base and was a Second Team All-NWC honoree.
Four freshmen have secured starting roles this season, led by shortstop Nick Motsinger who was named First Team All-NWC after batting above .340. Paul Miller has split time between DH and third base and was chosen All-NWC on the Second Team. Joshua Davis has started most of the Pirates' games behind the plate and Erik Nikssarian has become the starting right fielder.
Ramsay has no fear that his young Pirates will be overcome by pressure at the upcoming NCAA Division III tournament.
"We started the year picked sixth in the NWC preseason poll and spent the entire season chasing the teams ahead of us," said Ramsay. "Toward the end of the regular season we heard a lot about lack of experience and not being able to handle the pressure of 'playoff baseball.' Looking at the results I'd say our group did a pretty good job of managing all of that. In our eyes, the regional will be no different. Nobody expects much from us and it will be our job to change that."
Ramsay credits the steadying influence of his three regular senior starters, and one senior starting pitcher, who have seen much since the Pirates won all of ten games during their own freshman season in 2009.
Landon Scott, who has shared third base and DH duties with Miller, has played in 150 games during his Whitworth career and will finish with a career batting average above .390. Kevin Valerio has anchored the outfielders from his centerfielder position for four seasons and was an NCAA Division III Rawlings Gold Glove winner in 2011. JR Jarrell, an All-NWC Second Team first baseman this spring, was strong in the clutch at the plate and did not commit an error in 214 defensive chances in 2012.
Senior hurler CJ Perry was the lone non-frosh among the starting pitchers.
Those four, along with six of their fellow seniors, will walk across the graduation stage to receive their Whitworth diplomas on Sunday afternoon. From then on the Pirates will be able to focus all of their attention on what lies ahead in next week's NCAA tournament.
Ramsay, for one, cannot wait.
"Seeing our guys' shared joy for accomplishing what no one thought they could was amazing and I've been fortunate enough to be a part of it," he said. "BUT, we're not done yet."