by Jeff Bechthold
When this season's edition of the Washington baseball team takes the field, the lineup will be filled by relative newcomers. On an average day, the nine-man lineup is likely to feature as many as eight second-year players.
There is, however, one veteran among the group -- one last link to the 1998 season, when the Huskies swept Stanford for the Pac-10 Championship.
That player is senior second baseman Marc Rittenhouse, who begins his fourth season as a regular in the Husky lineup this February.
Rittenhouse is one of only five seniors on the Washington roster. Three of those seniors are pitchers and the other transferred to the UW from a junior college last season, making Rittenhouse easily the most experienced of the Husky batsmen. As one might expect, he'll take over duties as captain this year, sharing the honor with senior pitcher Jeff Carlsen.
Rittenhouse acknowledges that it's both an honor and a responsibility to be named captain.
"It was really important," he says. "I'm not a big talk guy on the field, but I try to lead by example. The freshmen look up to the seniors because they know we've been around. It's nice to know that the guys on the team think I should be a captain, and it's good to know that the guys buy in to what we, as seniors, have to say."
The jump from high school baseball to the college level is a huge one, but it's one that many of the Husky hitters were forced to make in a hurry last season. Four Husky players earned some level of Freshman All-America honors in 2000, but the team finished a disappointing 26-30 on the season. Rittenhouse knows that his teammates will make use of their experience as they enter their sophomore seasons.
"The difference between your first and second seasons is so dramatic," Rittenhouse explains. "My freshman year, everything was all new. But then your second year, you've gotten your feet wet. It's a huge difference. You look at the game differently. Once you learn the speed of the game and how it works, you start playing your own game. You start playing much better baseball."
Rittenhouse batted .259 over 51 games as a freshman before bursting out with a .360 average as a sophomore. Then last season, he exploded with 12 home runs, seventh-most in a single season all-time at Washington, but his average dipped to only .257. In 2001, the 5-foot-10 Rittenhouse intends to bring his statistics more in line with what one might expect from a leadoff hitter.
"I'm really not a power guy," he admits. "I've got to go out and hit for average. I shouldn't be out there trying to hit home runs. I'll still hit home runs here and there, but I have to go out and do what I did as a sophomore. My job is to get on base."
Rittenhouse's goals don't stop at the personal level. Obviously, he'd like his college career to close out the way it began. As a freshman, he played a relatively minor role on a star-studded team that went on to post a 41-17 record. This year, he hopes that the experience gained last year will lead to another postseason run.
"When I first came out here as a freshman, we won the Pac-10 right away. I got used to that," he says. "Then to have a rough season my sophomore year and then an even rougher year last season was hard.
"We have a talented team this year," he continues. "We have all of our pitching coming back. I think we're going to surprise some people and go out and win some games."
The experience gained last year was further bolstered by the team's trip to Cuba last fall. That trip afforded the team with two weeks of additional practice, as well as four games against the Cubans.
"It was good to get out there and play games," Rittenhouse says of the team's foreign tour. "It was also good to spend time with the team. It's not always the best talent that's going to win, but it's how you get along together. We have a lot of talent and if we play together, we'll win a lot of ballgames. It helped going to Cuba because it helped us build a bond."
If Rittenhouse is correct, the Huskies just may have all the ingredients in place for a successful 2001 season -- experience, chemistry and perhaps most of all, leadership.