By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University baseball team experienced an exciting and successful season in 2017, as the Bearcats earned a 28-14 overall record (.667), including an 18-6 mark (2nd place) in the Northwest Conference. The Bearcats qualified for the four-team NWC Tournament and advanced to the championship game before falling to Linfield College on the Wildcats' home field. Willamette was 12-2 in one-run games against NWC opponents and obtained a 60-31 scoring margin starting in the sixth inning of conference games.
It was Willamette's best winning percentage since the Bearcats were 31-12 (.721) in 1998. The Bearcats attained their top conference record and finish since winning the NWC title at 18-6 in 2001. All of last year's accomplishments were achieved with no seniors on the roster.
This season, the Bearcats return all nine starters in the batting order, plus three starting pitchers and the team's top relief pitcher. As a result, the Bearcats and Head Coach Aaron Swick have high expectations for the season. Rather than be complacent the Bearcats are ready to work as hard as they did last season. According to Swick, "the team is hungry to prove that last year wasn't a fluke and to take another step as a program."
With advancing the program as a goal, the Bearcats are set to play their most competitive schedule since joining NCAA Division III prior to the 1999 season. In addition to playing all eight NWC opponents, including 2017 NWC Tournament foes Linfield, Pacific Lutheran University and Whitworth University, the Bearcats will take on eight non-conference opponents from NCAA Division III.
Willamette will open the season this weekend on Friday, Feb. 2 agaisnt Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, Claif., at 2:30 p.m. (PST). The Bearcats will play two games against Whittier College on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., before completing the road trip with a single game against Pomona-Pitzer on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 11 a.m.
Next weekend, the Bearcats will play a series of games in a tournament hosted by LeTourneau University (Texas) in Grand Prairie, Texas. On Friday, Feb. 9, WU will take on Texas Lutheran University at 2:30 p.m. CST/12:30 p.m. PST and will play LeTourneau at 6 p.m. CST/4 p.m. PST. The Bearcats will meet Hardin-Simmons University (Texas) on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. CST/4 p.m. PST, and will close out the tournament against Hendrix College (Ark.) on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 10 a.m. CST/8 a.m. PST. Later in the season, WU will host Swarthmore College (Pa.) for three games. The Bearcats and the Garnet will play one game on March 16, followed by two games on March 17.
The Bearcats are slated to open NWC play with a rematch of last year's NWC Tournament final with Willamette hosting Linfield in two games on Saturday, Feb. 17 starting at 11 a.m. (PST). The Bearcats and the Wildcats will play one game on Feb. 18 at 12 p.m.
Willamette returns many of the pitchers who helped the Bearcats register a 4.46 team earned run average last season, including a 3.62 ERA in the NWC. At the top of the pitching staff is Matt Steindorf (Jr., RHP, Granite Bay, CA/Granite Bay HS), who was named First Team All-NWC in 2017. He achieved a 3.87 ERA and an 8-2 record in 88 1/3 innings pitched. Steindorf led the Bearcats with 59 strikeouts and walked just 17 batters. He built a solid 5-2 record and an impressive 2.97 ERA in NWC games.
"Matt was a bulldog last season. He is one of the best pitchers in the conference and a true #1," Swick said.
Brandon Nelson (Jr., RHP, Murrieta, CA/Vista Murrieta HS) followed with a 3.88 ERA and a 3-3 record for the Bearcats. He struck out 37 batters in 58 innings pitched. He held NWC batters to a .250 batting average while going 3-1 in conference games.
"Brandon had flashes of dominance last season," Swick recalled. "He works extremely hard at his craft and has great potential."
Steindorf and Nelson will be two of WU's three starters during each NWC series. Benjamin Whitten (So., RHP, Danville, CA/San Ramon Valley HS), Nathan Gilman (Jr., RHP, Chino Hills, CA/Diamond Rach HS), and Jason Snare (Fr., LHP, Seattle, WA/Brainbridge HS) will battle for the third starting position. Whitten made 12 starts for Willamette last season and went 5-2 with a 4.72 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. Gilman pitched in 10 games with eight starts a year ago and attained a 1-1 record with a 6.46 ERA. Snare pitched last season at Bainbridge High School in Washington.
Willamette has strong group of middle relievers, led by Jett Gallagher (Sr., RHP, Santa Cruz, CA/Santa Cruz HS), who saw action in nine games last season, primarily in the final two innings. Gallagher recorded a 4.00 ERA in 36 innings, while building a 5-2 record with five saves. He struck out 22 batters and held opponents to a .258 batting average. Gallagher was 5-0 with three saves in NWC action. He was an Honorable Mention All-NWC selection.
"Jett has been successful in any role we ask of him," Swick said. "His competitiveness and game awareness are big reasons for his success."
Dawson Enright (So., RHP, La Mesa, CA/James Madison HS) and Mason Cook (So., RHP, Riverton, UT/Riverton HS) both performed well on the mound as freshmen last season. Enright finished with a 3.68 ERA in eight appearances with a 1-0 record and one save, as he limited batters to a .222 average. He struck out 16 batters in 29 1/3 innings. Cook was 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA and a .244 opponent batting average.
Other returning relief pitchers include Harbour Harrison (Jr., UT, El Cerrito, CA/El Cerrito HS) and Nolan Boggini (Jr., RHP, El Dorado Hills, CA/Oak Ridge HS), who have continued to improve. Newcomers Brandon Murillo (Fr., RHP, Rancho Cucamonga, CA/Los Osos HS), Liam Keefe (Fr., LHP, Lake Arrowhead, CA/Rim of the World HS) and Austin Peters (Fr., RHP, Corona, CA/Norco HS) provide depth. In addition, utility players Brendan Natuzzi (So., UT, Napa, CA/Justin-Siena HS) and Nicholas Di Fiori (Fr., UT, Monrovia, CA/Bishop Amat HS) will contribute to the pitching staff.
The Bearcats have the benefit of two returning starters at catcher. Jack Brett (Sr., C, Aurora, CO/Regis Jesuit HS) and Cole Pursell (Jr., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) each started 22 games at catcher or designated hitter in 2017. Pursell hit .298 with three doubles and two homers, including the game-winning solo homer in the 14th inning against Whitman College for a 4-3 win on March 11. Brett hit .247 with three doubles and three homers. Each excelled behind the plate on defense.
"Both of these guys are talented enough to play all 40 games," Swick said. "They handle the staff well and are an offensive threat in every at bat."
Brett and Pursell also played well on their summer league teams. Brett helped the Hornell Dodgers win the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL) regular season championship and postseason tournament title. He hit .399 and was named NYCBL Co-Player of the Year along with fellow Willamette player Connor Bailey (Jr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS). Brett also was chosen Co-MVP of the NYCBL Championship Series. Pursell achieved a .300 batting average for the Utica Blue Sox (N.Y.) in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL).
Willamette's starters in the infield provide the Bearcats with lots of experience, especially up the middle and at first base. Last year, second baseman Troy Conway (Sr., 2B, Moorpark, CA/Moorpark HS) played in 41 games, while shortstop Tyler Janitz (Jr., SS, Modesto, CA/Joseph A. Gregori HS) saw action in 38 games. Eric Del Prado (Sr., 1B, El Segundo, CA/Loyola HS) matched Conway with 41 games played.
Conway and Janitz remain the starters up the middle. Last spring, Conway provided the Bearcats with a .277 batting average and led the team with 34 runs scored. He accumulated eight doubles, two triples and four homers. Janitz scored 18 runs to go along three doubles and one home run. He tied for first on the team with nine sacrifice bunts and led Willamette's defense with 113 assists. This year, Sean Little (Fr., INF, Corvallis, OR/Crescent Valley HS) will back-up Conway at second and Eric Pachowicz (So., INF, Camarillo, CA/Rio Mesa HS) will provide depth at shortstop.
"Troy and Tyler provide great defense and leadership up the middle," Swick said.
Del Prado and Mason Fessler (Sr., DH/INF, Woodburn, OR/Blanchet Catholic School) will compete for the starting job at first base. Fessler competed in 41 games last season, primarily as the team's designated hitter, and was named First Team All-NWC after batting .277 with five doubles and five home runs. He led the NWC with 30 walks and tied for second on Willamette's roster with 28 RBIs. Del Prado hit .294 with 10 doubles and three homers, while driving in a team-high 32 runs and scoring 26 times. He registered a team-high 358 putouts on defense and earned a .995 fielding percentage. Del Prado was named Second Team All-NWC in 2016.
"Eric and Mason have been huge in the middle of the order and are capable of being game changers," Swick commented.
Depth at first base will be supplied by Sam Hudd (Jr./So., UT, Evergreen, CO/Evergreen HS) and Di Fiori.
Third base features a three-way battle for playing time between Kyle Paguio (Jr., 3B, Stevenson Ranch, CA/West Ranch HS), Natuzzi and Aaron Fong (Sr., SS, Honolulu, HI/Punahou School). Paguio played in 36 games, including 35 starts in 2017. He scored 19 runs and tied for the team lead with nine sacrifice bunts. Natuzzi saw limited time on offense, while focusing on his role in the bullpen. Fong batted .400 with 16 hits in 40 at bats. He played in 25 games, including 12 starts. Fong batted .692 (9 for 13) during the NWC Tournament, when he filled in at shortstop due to an injury to Janitz.
The starting outfield returns with Connor Bailey (Jr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS), Perry Van Eckhardt (Sr., CF, El Cerrito, CA/El Cerrito HS) and Cameron Igarashi (Sr., RF, Honolulu, HI/Mid-Pacific Institute).
Bailey led Willamette with a .351 batting average and started 41 games. He was second on the team with 30 runs and tied for second with 28 RBIs. He led the team with 11 doubles and three triples, while finishing second with six home runs. He led WU with a .578 slugging percentage and a .443 on-base percentage. On defense, Bailey had 71 putouts with no errors. He was chosen Honorable Mention All-NWC. During the summer, Bailey was a Co-MVP of the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL) while playing for the Hornell Dodgers.
"Bailey has the talent and the drive to be one of the best players in the conference," Swick noted.
Van Eckhardt batted .330 for the Bearcats with a team-high seven home runs. He also pounded out six doubles, while scoring 27 runs and recording 24 RBIs. He was 19 of 20 on stolen bases. He recorded a hit in 15 of Willamette's final 16 games. During one six-game stretch during the streak, he blasted a total of four home runs. Igarashi competed in 32 games with 22 starts a year ago. He scored 10 runs and had 13 RBIs. He was 7 for 7 on stolen base attempts.
"Perry had a stretch last season where he carried our team. When he is at his best, he can do it all offensively," Swick said. "Cameron is a ball player and a winner, and he knows how to get the job done."
Joseph Faudskar (So., OF, Phoenix, AZ/Pinnacle HS) will be the top outfielder off the bench. He saw action in 21 games with 15 starts as a freshman. Additional depth will come from freshmen Tyler Vandemark (OF, Modesto, CA/Joseph A. Gregori HS), Michael Nelson (UT, Folsom, CA/Vista Del Lago HS) and Ben Setlak (OF, Evergreen, CO/Evergreen HS).