SPOKANE, Wash. -- It is remarkable to think about how much things have changed for the Whitworth baseball team in the course of 12 months. At this time last year head coach Dan Ramsay was optimistic that his heralded recruiting class would mesh with a strong group of veterans well enough to make the Pirates potential Northwest Conference contenders. He got so much more – a conference championship, an NCAA West Region championship and the team's first-ever appearance at the NCAA Division III World Series were the Bucs finished fifth.
Now Whitworth heads into the 2013 season as a heavy favorite in the Northwest Conference preseason coaches' poll and the Pirates are ranked fifth in the D3baseball.com preseason top-25 poll.
"I think teams can do one of two things following a successful season," Ramsay said. "The team can become complacent and assume things are going to come easy, or it can get hungry and approach the daily habits with a 'never-satisfied' attitude. This group has some strong leaders who are more determined than any I've ever been around. This team has embraced the fact that we're going to get every other team's best shot from here on out and has worked extremely hard to be ready for it."
The Pirates return four starting pitchers and several key position players from 2012 when the Bucs went 31-16-1 overall and 19-5 in the NWC, setting a new school record for most victories in a single season.
Any outlook for the 2013 Pirates has to begin with the pitching staff. A remarkable group of freshmen hurlers are now sophomores and Ramsay will look to them to provide the spark on the mound.
Dan Scheibe, Carson Blumenthal, Spencer Ansett and Nick Scourey all started and won at least one game in the NCAA tournament last season. And that quartet is joined by junior Jason Renner, who set a Whitworth single-season record for saves as the Pirates' closer last year.
"Our pitching staff clearly has a chance to be the strength of our team this season," Ramsay said.
Scheibe earned First Team All-Northwest Conference, as well as All-Region honors, after finishing 7-3 with a 2.66 ERA last spring. He struck out 95 batters in 88.0 innings pitched, with only 21 bases on balls.
Blumenthal went 6-5 with a 4.38 ERA. He was the winning pitcher in the Pirates' victory over Christopher Newport in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Ansett led the team in pitching victories with eight, and walked only 16 batters in 85.1 innings of work. He threw eight shutout innings in the Pirates' 12-0 regional win over Trinity (Texas).
Scourey (3-0) was a spot-starter for the Pirates last season, but his best performance was a complete-game two-hitter in a 5-1 win over top-seeded Concordia (Texas) at the NCAA regional.
The Pirate battery is in great shape as Josh Davis returns as the starting catcher. He hit .318 last season, and by the end was throwing out better than 50% of attempted base stealers. Marlowe Peter will provide a veteran backup behind the plate.
Graduataon and injuries will lead to a shakeup on the infield this season. First baseman JR Jarrell graduated and Paul Miller, who became a standout third baseman as a freshman last year, will not play this spring due to a knee injury he suffered during the football season. In addition, All-NWC shortstop Nick Motsinger is also recovering from an injury that could impede his start to the season.
"We will have new guys step into key roles this year," Ramsay said. "But I'm more than confident in their ability to do so."
Gerhard Muelheims, a Second Team All-NWC honoree last year, will likely move from second base to shortstop at the beginning of the season. He batted .319 with 13 doubles and 29 runs batted in last spring.
Justin Liu, who appeared in 17 games last season, is slated to take over at first base.
Whitworth's outfield returns two of three starters from last season, led by All-American Tyler Pfeffer in left field. He batted .379 with 12 home runs, 23 doubles and 61 RBIs last year.
Erik Nikssarian established himself as the starting right fielder midway through last season and finished with a .291 batting average.
Ramsay must replace graduated centerfielder Kevin Valerio, the MVP of the West Regional. He may move Nikssarian over to center and then fill the right field spot. Newcomers Skyler Lookabill and Blake Thoren have been impressive in practice. Carson Blumenthal could also see time in the outfield when he is not pitching.
Ramsay believes he is ready to put another talented team on the field in 2013.
"When we're out recruiting we're not simply trying to build a solid team, but we're working to build a consistently competitive program," Ramsay said. "To steal a line from our basketball program, tradition never graduates. We're in the process of reestablishing the tradition of excellence our program has been known for in the past and we're doing it with talented student athletes."
Whitworth will open the season on February 8-10 with four games in Southern California against SCIAC contenders Cal Lutheran and Pomona-Pitzer. The non-conference schedule will also include a return to Pasco, Washington for the Swing into Spring Classic and a spring break trip to Texas for contests against Texas-Tyler and Austin.
The Northwest Conference will be as tough as ever, including traditional contenders George Fox, Linfield and Pacific Lutheran, along with 2012 co-champion Pacific University.