As Western Nevada College enters its ninth baseball season, the only head coach the program has known listed a number of reasons as to why a new campaign brings special meaning to him.
â€œThe most enjoyable part of a new season is watching a teamâ€™s identity form, watching the players come together for a common goal, watching the playersâ€™ confidence grow,â€ said D.J. Whittemore, who has built a multi-faceted program that delivers more than championships.
Each of these developments doesnâ€™t happen by chance. Whittemore and his coaching staff have structured a program focused on accountability, preparation and hard work.
Whittemoreâ€™s teams have averaged more than 40 wins in his previous eight seasons. Their success isnâ€™t by accident.
â€œWe want to work hard and prepare better than everybody else. We want to reach our potential. We want to deserve to win,â€ said Whittemore, who has a 345-144-2 career record at WNC.
During that time span, WNC has claimed three Western District titles, three Region 18 championships and three Scenic West Athletic Conference titles; received seven National Junior College Athletic Association All-Academic Team honors; and made three appearances in the NJCAA World Series.
Last yearâ€™s team came within one victory of making its fourth trip to the NJCAA World Series, losing a slugfest to Cochise in the Western District finals. Cochise went on to lose to national champion Central Alabama 14-13 in 11 innings and finished third at the NJCAA World Series.
â€œWe have some unfinished business,â€ said sophomore pitcher Christian Stolo. â€œWeâ€™re looking forward to the season, seeing which goals we can accomplish. We want to be the best team we can be, win a couple of championships while doing good in school.â€
Giving the 14th-ranked Wildcats cause for optimism and a shot at the World Series are the return of six starting position players and several pitchers who have succeeded in the past. However, Whittemore and his team donâ€™t judge the success of season by advancing to the World Series.
â€œAt the end of the year, we will only be fulfilled and satisfied with our season if we know in our hearts we did everything we could all day, every day to be the best we could. If the season falls short of the World Series, we can still consider ourselves successful if we believe in our preparation and commitment to one another,â€ Whittemore said.
Even with sophomores expected to man most of the positions in the field, that doesnâ€™t guarantee success, according to Whittemore. Work and preparation are what produce success, he said.
â€œEven sophomores are just 20 years old and prone to a great deal of ups and downs,â€ Whittemore said. â€œWe are concerned that our pitchers challenge hitters and throw low strikes. We are concerned that our catchers will put their mitt in the right spot and put down the right number. We are concerned that our outfielders will stand in the right spot and challenge runners on a hop. We are concerned that we will turn groundballs into outs. We are concerned our hitters will get the ball in play in with two strikes and execute situationally.
â€œWe work on all of these things from Aug. 10 every day until the season starts in January so that we can stop worrying and start trusting our preparation.â€
Whittemore will build his pitching staff around Stolo, who has signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Nevada, Reno next season. Stolo, one of three lefties on the staff, compiled an 8-3 record and 1.98 earned run average as a freshman.
â€œHis competitiveness and his confidence, combined with his talent, make him tough to beat out,â€ said Whittemore when posed with a question about who might make up his starting rotation.
Sophomore right-hander Spencer Greer, 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA as a freshman, figures to be another key arm, as well as sophomore Conor Harber, who led last yearâ€™s team with a 0.96 ERA in five appearances.
â€œGreer pitched fairly well in the 7, 8, and 9 role last year and wants badly to improve his performance and his contribution this spring,â€ Whittemore said.
The Wildcats also welcome back utility player Rayne Raven, who was sidelined for most of last season with several injuries. Whittemore said Ravenâ€™s pitching role hasnâ€™t been determined. In 2012, Raven had a 2.35 ERA in 12 appearances as hitters only batted .176 against him.
The Wildcats also brought in a transfer from Arizona Western College to bolster their pitching staff. Jeremy Alderman worked more than 70 innings while winning five games for the Matadors last season.
â€œThe rotation is really up for grabs. Any number of about 10-12 different pitchers could easily win a job in the rotation,â€ Whittemore said. â€œFirst off, we donâ€™t have any world-beaters, but we do have quite a few competitive pitchers.â€
Like he has in the past, Whittemore also will consider pitching several of his best arms from the bullpen.
â€œSo, that means the (starting) rotation can include anyone from the top 7 on the depth chart,â€ he said.
Beyond the returning arms and an experienced transfer, pitching coach Josh Moody will face basically the same task as last season: Bring along an inexperienced staff as quickly as he can.
â€Every great team has great pitching,â€ Whittemore said. â€œWe lost eight out of last seasonâ€™s top 10 pitchers and none of the pitchers we brought in to replace them was drafted last spring, so we have a lot of questions on the mound, and that is where it starts and ends.â€
Of his seven freshman hurlers, Whittemore said Anchorage, Alaska, product Max Karnos stood out the most during fall workouts. Whittemoreâ€™s last pitcher from Alaska, Dylan Baker, turned out to be one of the best in program history and became a fifth-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians in 2012.
â€œMax Karnos was the best freshman in the fall and has the secret weapon working in his favor: command,â€ Whittemore said. â€œBeyond that, I feel like we have a bunch of pitchers who are working hard with the same goal of pitching with the game on the line each week.â€
Compounding the pitching uncertainties is the fact that last yearâ€™s standout catcher Cole Ferguson graduated. Four players are competing for the starting spot behind the plate, including sophomore Spenser Dorsey.
â€œWe can add to that that we lost our top two signal callers from last season and you can see why any expectations other than getting better faster would be unreasonable and even counterproductive,â€ Whittemore said.
Triggering the offense is Harber, who became the first Wildcat to hit .400 or better last season. In his record-setting freshman season, Harber hit .411 and legged out 11 triples. The University of Oregon signee only fanned 24 times in 214 at-bats and knocked in 42 runs.
As a freshman, Raven hit .314 with three homers, two triples and 33 RBI, helping the Wildcats reach the World Series. But those stats wonâ€™t help his cause going into the 2014 season.
â€œHe has been around long enough to know that nobody is given anything based on the past, so he is in great shape there,â€ Whittemore said. â€œHe is very good at playing baseball. He can and has played every position on the field well.â€
Ravenâ€™s versatility gives Whittemore flexibility in the field and on the mound.
â€œWe can see him hitting in the middle of the order, starting at DH or one of the corner positions and ranging anywhere from the No. 1 starter to the closer,â€ Whittemore said. â€œHe also has real confidence that he can hit the mitt when he is on the mound and make hard contact when he is in the box. Those are the two things that really separate him … confidence and an appreciation for how difficult the game can be.â€
Other key returning offensive performers are outfielder Joey Crunkilton, fourth on team in 2013 with a .319 average, 29 RBI, a team-leading 16 doubles and 27Ks in 160 at-bats; outfielder Stolo, .315 average and seven doubles; first baseman Connor Klein, second on team with a .338 average, 13 Ks in 160 at-bats, 10 doubles, three homers and 29 RBI; outfielder Alex Fife,.288 average with eight doubles; and Tony Roque, a shortstop with range and some pop in his bat with nine doubles, two triples and 24 RBI a year ago.
â€œWatching Crunkilton, Harber, Stolo, Raven, Klein, Fife, Roque adapt to playing a leading role on the field, in the lineup and the dugout will be fun and crucial to our ultimate success,â€ Whittemore said.
Providing leadership to a club containing 14 freshmen, including seven pitchers, is a role that Stolo plans to embrace.
â€œIâ€™m looking forward to being a starting pitcher and outfielder playing-wise as well as being a vocal leader and setting a good example in everything I do,â€ Stolo said.
Putting together outstanding back-to-back individual seasons is something Whittemore has rarely witnessed at WNC.
â€œBrian Barnett is really the only one who comes to mind. (Kyle) Bondurant, (Travis) Feiner, (Chris) Woolley, (Mike) Umscheid are a few others,â€ Whittemore said. â€œBut hitting college pitching consistently for two straight years and staying healthy through the grind of the Scenic West is more than most players can handle.
â€œHaving returning position players is a nice luxury, but the bottom line is whether you are 19 or 20, great make-up and talent outweigh experience by a huge margin.â€
Since practice opened earlier this month, the Wildcats have dealt with an excess of injuries. Among them were season-ending injuries to infielder Jack Hall and pitcher Jamie Flynn.
Stolo said the Wildcats have the depth and commitment to surmount the teamâ€™s spate of injuries.
â€œWe have the personnel to overcome it and accomplish what we want to accomplish,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™ll just have to work harder and stay healthy for the rest of the year.â€
The Wildcats will spend the first week of the season in Arizona, including a rematch with Cochise on Feb. 6-8. WNCâ€™s home opener is tentatively set for Feb. 19 against Prairie from Canada.
Fans can follow the Wildcats through play-by-play announcer Chris Graham at Ustream-Live WNC Broadcast as well as at GameChanger.io. WNCâ€™s weekend schedule includes games at 1 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday.