January 19, 1999
SEATTLE - Don't talk to Washington coach Ken Knutson about "rebuilding". Yes, it's true that his 1999 Husky baseball team is missing several of the best players in school history off of last year's roster. Between them, Chris Magruder, Kevin Miller and Ryan Lentz broke 19 individual school records during their three-year careers. They, along with seven other letterwinners from last season, have left.
But the team that has won the last two Pacific-10 Conference championships is taking the defense of its titles seriously.
While the team isn't exactly rebuilding, it has changed. Whereas Washington has built a deserved reputation as an offense-dominated team the last three years, this season, pitching may carry more of the load.
Washington returns all four pitchers that started on the mound at least 10 times last season, as well as several others with starting experience who could vie for spots in the rotation this season.
While much of the big names in the batting order are gone, don't expect the Husky offense to become suddenly anemic. The 13 returning Husky hitters on the 1999 team batted a combined .316 last season and accounted for 57 of the Huskies' 110 home runs last year. There's plenty of experience returning as four seniors and three juniors are expected to be a part of the regular starting lineup.
That experience will get a big test as the Huskies head into a new era -- the advent of a unified Pacific- 10 Conference and the expansion of the NCAA tournament field.
The big news in Huskyland is the re-unification of the Pac-10, which will play without divisions for the first time since 1969. Basically, the Huskies have moved from the Northern Division into the nation's toughest conference.
"We're excited about the new era," Knutson says. "We're excited because it gives us a tremendous challenge. We've wanted this for a long time, but we realize that we're jumping into the top conference in the country."
Despite the increased schedule difficulty, Knutson thinks that being in the Pac-10 will definitely increase the Huskies' chances of making it to the postseason (helped even more by the fact that the NCAA has expanded the tournament field from 48 to 64 teams; see page 11 for more).
In the past, the Pac-10 North champion might not receive an at-large NCAA berth and needed to beat the Southern Division champ to secure the conference's automatic berth. Now, a finish somewhere in the middle of the league, perhaps as low as fifth or sixth, could still secure any Pac-10 team a place in the tournament.
That's not to say, of course, that the Huskies have set fifth place as a goal. "We feel that we're up to the challenge," Knutson says. "We should be able to compete with the best teams in our conference. Even though we lost a lot of prominent players, this year's team will be very experienced.
"These guys have played a lot over the last two or three years," Knutson continues, "and now they have a chance to step up. I think we'll still be very dangerous offensively. We've still got good speed and power. We'll probably even be more offensive at some positions compared last year."
Perhaps more so than ever, the Washington pitching staff is deep -- very deep. Only four players that pitched last year have departed, and those four accounted for a total of only three starts. Seven other pitchers that started last year, including the four regulars, return. Also back are several of the team's top relievers and a sizable group of young left- and right-handed talents.
The returning pitchers combined for a total of 418 innings last season, out of the Huskies' total of 498.2
The newest part of the pitching staff is new coach Ed Gustafson, a former All-Pac-10 pitcher at Washington State. "He sees the game like a pitcher," Knutson says. "He's already made a big impact as far as connecting with our pitching staff."
Entering the spring, five players have earned spots in the starting rotation, a number that will probably be necessary with so many important mid-week games this year.
Junior righty Jeff Heaverlo leads the list. The hard thrower is known for his outstanding slider and has gained national attention thanks to a tremendous summer in the Cape Cod League. "Jeff had a great summer," Knutson says. "He's had the exposure and experience where he's on track to have an All- Pac-10 or All-America kind of season."
Last year, sophomore righty Jeff Carlsen earned freshman All-America with his 7-3 record. "Carlsen had the best year a freshman pitcher has ever had here," Knutson says. "For such a physically big pitcher [6-foot-7, 228 pounds], he has a real feel for pitching. He locates and changes speed very well."
A third member of the rotation is junior right-hander Travis Anderson, whose powerful fastball has made him a high-level prospect. "It's a big year for Travis," Knutson says. "He should have a lot of confidence coming from being a walkon to a top pitcher in the program."
Senior lefty Matt Hampton is one of two lefties in the rotation. With 25 career starts, he's tied with Heaverlo for most on the team. At the end of last season, he began throwing a slider that increased his effectiveness dramatically.
Finally, sophomore southpaw Mike Bomar is the least experienced of the group with only three starts and 28.1 innings a year ago. But Knutson says that the 6-foot-5 hard-thrower "was the dominant pitcher on our staff in the fall" as his fastball made a jump.
The biggest name in the bullpen is senior righty Bryan Williamson, perhaps the Huskies' most important player. Knutson intends to use Williamson as a starting outfielder and DH and as a do-all reliever, operating in long and short relief. "I'll use him however and whenever we need him," Knutson says. "When we get into trouble, I'll get him in there. I'm not going to lose a close game that we might have won because I didn't get Willy in there."
Sophomore right-hander Matt Massingale enters the year as the closer. Last year, the side-armer surprised the coaching staff with his hard fastball and went on to lead the team in appearances while posting a 6-2 record. "The thing that surprised us is that his velocity made a big jump," Knutson says. "He went from 82-84 in high school to 88-91. He's got a lot of movement for throwing that hard, and he truly seems to be comfortable on the mound in tight situations."
Junior Ken Ferguson is another experienced right-hander with good heat. He'll be another option in long and short roles. "Fergy's really important to the team," Knutson says. "He shortens the game for the other team because they have to take some time to adjust to him."
The Huskies have numerous options for left-handed relief. The first one is sophomore Matt Gardner. "We want to be able to use him to beat up on left-handed teams," Knutson says. "He gives us the ability to flip other teams around."
Five other lefties will battle for innings out of the bullpen -- sophomore Daniel Jahn, red-shirt freshmen Kurt Lehrmann and Owen Garmire and true freshmen Taylor Grant and Zack Daniels. Knutson expects all of them to pitch this year and several could become starters in future years.
Jahn, who gained experience as a pitcher and hitter last season, will also work out as a lefty-hitting designated hitter. As a redshirt last year, Lehrmann gained a reputation in practice for being particularly tough on left-handers.
Garmire and Grant are both big and projectable and Knutson expects them, along with Daniels to compete for innings this year.
Three freshman right-handers will also get a shot -- Brian Barton, Shawn Kohn and Randy Vanderplow. Barton has a chance to play as an outfielder and pitcher this year. Knutson calls Kohn "a strike machine" and expect him to be a very good college pitcher. Similarly, he calls Vanderplow a "strike-thrower who's big and projectable."
With the loss of Ryan Bundy -- one the nation's top defensive catchers -- the Huskies have a hole to fill. But despite the fact that Bundy started for the last three years, there is surprising experience returning.
Heading into the spring, Dominic Woody has earned the starting spot. The tall, athletic junior possesses all the tools to be a top-notch player. "Dominic will hit well, he has great arm strength and he can run," Knutson says. "His play will be very important to us since we've been so good defensively at that spot for a few years."
Senior captain Pete Orgill underwent shoulder surgery that kept him out of fall practice, but he should be fine by spring and will challenge Woody for starts. "Pete will play a lot at catcher and DH," Knutson says. "He's a wonderful receiver, he's got great left-handed power and he's a great leader. If he'd been healthy through his career, he'd be in the pros by now."
Red-shirt freshman Jake Gann is the Huskies' No. 3 catcher and probable future starter. Knutson says that his playing time will be based largely on Orgill's health, but that Gann can certainly handle it if he's needed.
Junior Jason Koehler provides further depth, and with his strong bat, will also present an option as a DH and pinch hitter. Finally, senior Kevin Ticen, who will start at third base, is also a catcher.
Junior first baseman Ed Erickson, despite a slow start, belted 14 home runs last season, the third- highest total in UW history. With 22 career homers, he should presumably break Kevin Miller's record of 30 by season's end. He'll start at first base, as he did last season. "Ed could be one of the better home run hitters in the conference," Knutson says. "We see him as our cleanup hitter again this year."
Freshman switch-hitter Todd Linden is the other Husky expected to see some time at first this season and should start there when Erickson departs. "Todd's one of the best big-and-fast guys we've ever had here," Knutson says.
Sophomore Marc Rittenhouse started at second base for the second half of last season and will return to that spot this year, while also taking on the role of leadoff hitter. "Ritt's always been a leadoff hitter," Knutson says, "and he's always been good at it. I think he'll be an impact player."
Freshman Brent Robertson, who will likely red-shirt the year, is the backup. He could be called into action should Rittenhouse move over to play shortstop.
The questions begin on the left side of the infield where Miller and Lentz, both three-year starters, have moved on. Sophomore Greg Brooks and freshman Richard Hall head into the spring battling for the starting spot, but Rittenhouse could slide over as well. As for Brooks and Hall, whoever plays better defense will likely earn the position.
"Brooks gets the edge because of experience," Knutson says. "Everytime he got in there last year, he did something good. In high school, I thought Hall had the kind of defensive ability that Miller did, which is very good."
Ticen, a senior, is slated to start at third base. A former walkon catcher who was once cut from the team as a freshman, he has been voted a captain and made a smooth transition to his new position in the fall. "He really swings the bat," Knutson says. "I expect him to be a very good player who will probably end up getting signed after the year."
Aside from Hall, who will back up at third, the Huskies have freshman Ben Miller, who is also an outfielder. Sitting out this season due to transfer rules is sophomore Michael Done, a JC All-American who is in line to start at third base next season.
As has become custom in recent years, the Huskies are loaded with outfielders. At least two deep at every position, it will be a battle for playing time.
Williamson, who also pitches, will be a starter in right field and will likely bat third in the order. However, in looking out for his arm, he'll be the designated hitter a lot of the time on days after a long pitching outing. "Willy's always been consistent when I play him consistenly," Knutson says.
Sophomore Tyson Boston, who has the best outfield arm on the team, will probably start in right field when Williamson doesn't. A speedy player, Boston displayed good power in limited action last year. Brian Barton, a freshman pitcher, also plays right.
Junior Kyle Woods will move to center field from his starting spot in left field last season. The faster runner on the team, Woods clouted 14 home runs last year. "Kyle is a tremendously gifted player," Knutson says. Backing up in center is junior Dwight DeMar, a switch hitter with strong defensive abilities. "We'd like to see Dwight get some more playing time," his coach says.
Freshman Mike Cooney is the heir apparent in center, though time this year will be hard to come by. "Mike was the dominant base-stealer in the state last year," Knutson says. "He'll be our leadoff hitter someday."
In left field is Nick Stefonick, an All-Pac-10 North selection as a right fielder last year. Stefonick went on a tear through the second half of last season and finished with a .407 average, the second-highest in UW history. "Nick gives us a lot of experience," Knutson says. "He's a really good hitter, and he's a guy that can hit in a bunch of different spots."
Matt Hollod, a red-shirt freshman, will also demand some playing time in left or at DH. "Hollod has as good a swing as anyone of the ball club," says Knutson. "We may use him in a lot of ways. He's really got tremendous offensive ability."
Rounding out the outfield is Ben Miller, who also backs up at third base. "Miller's a really good offensive player," Knutson says. "We just have to settle on a position for him."
The timing couldn't be better for the Huskies' move into the new, unified Pac-10. As the two-time defending champions, the UW will try for a third conference crown with a surprisingly deep team. Once again this spring, the Huskies are dreaming of Omaha, and with the talent they'll put on the field, it's not merely a pipe dream.