The Columbia Basin Big Nine 3A and 4A divisions may open league play on April Fools Day, but the competition in both is no joke.
In the 4A ranks, Richland will open as the league favorite, though Davis and Walla Walla won't be easy to shake.
The Bombers have reached the state semifinals -- baseball's Final Four -- in each of the last four seasons and five times in six years, winning titles on the odd years in 2005, '07 and '09. If 2011 is to follow suit, Richland will need production from up and down a lineup that includes five players who hit .340 or better last season, including all-league first-team second baseman Corey Morris.
While the pitching staff may not have the one-two starting punch it did last season with Travis Fuller and Mike Dunford, coach Ben Jacobs thinks he has a deeper staff. And no one may be better than the Bombers up the middle with catcher Jarrod Turner, Morris, shortstop Syd Hall and center fielder Zach Rapacz.
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Walla Walla has four of the top seven returning hitters, including senior outfielder Matt Watson (.463, first-team pick) and senior third baseman Jake Jimenez (.440, 15 RBI, second-team). Also, the Blue Devils have terrific starting pitching with Watson, Drew Christina and Jake Campeau.
Davis has a veteran lineup, starting with first-team second baseman Marcus McClurkin (.407, 10 stolen bases).
Wenatchee returns the top hitter in the league (Diego Garcia, .488) as well as the top ERA guy in sophomore Dustin Driver (1.25, 21 strikeouts in 221/3 innings).
Moses Lake also could factor into the picture behind ace Mitch Yada (2.80 ERA, 31 K in 35 1/3 innings). The Chiefs are playing this season under interim coach Quintz Whitaker after the death of coach Ed McNamara less than two weeks ago.
Chiawana will be much improved over last year's 1-19 squad that had no seniors. Junior CJ Edrington, perhaps the most versatile athlete in the school, is a returning second-team selection in the outfield, and senior third baseman/pitcher Luc Graff could be in for a big season.
The CBBN 3A should be a real battle, with Southridge, Kamiakin, Kennewick, Hanford and Eastmont likely to beat each other up throughout the season.
The Braves and Suns return their lineups almost intact.
Kamiakin's lineup includes first-teamers Drew Oord (junior, third base, .387, 21 RBI) and Joey Jansen (senior, center field, .386) and second-teamers Blake Raekes (senior, second base) and AJ Griffiths (senior, shortstop, .397, 5 SBs). Also, ace lefty Garrett Anderson (7-0, 1.31 ERA) was the Cascade Division pitcher of the year.
Southridge, meanwhile, has three Division I signees: Oregon-bound outfielder Spencer O'Neil (.484, 5 HR, 26 RBI) and Washington State-signed twins Bryce (2.27 ERA) and Ty Jackson (.385, 22 RBI) splitting time at first and pitching. And first-team junior third baseman Matt Mendenhall (.479) already is off to a hot start.
Kennewick will pile runs on the board with a lineup that includes junior shortstop Trek Stemp (.563, 4 HR, 26 RBI, 18-for-18 SBs), the Columbia Division player of the year. Also, all-league outfielder Drew Loftus (.391) has gotten past the knee troubles that plagued his junior season. The Lions will be without their big catcher, Tyler Morfin, who suffered a knee injury during the winter. Returning first-teamer Devin Westermeyer (6-0, 4.16 ERA) heads the pitching staff; finding arms beyond him will be the key.
Hanford also has plenty of returners from last year's squad that made its third straight state appearance, including first-teamers senior first baseman Riley Shintaffer (.412) and senior pitcher Dan Scheibe (4-2, 1.87 ERA, 45 K in 30 IP; .375 BA). But the Falcons most dynamic offensive player might be junior shortstop AJ Hoskins (.510, 5 SB).
Eastmont also has the makings of a championship team, led by ace Ian Sagdal (5-3, 3.65 ERA) and power-hitting infielder Tygar Garces (.426, 7 HR, 28 RBI). West Valley also could figure into the mix.
Pasco will have its work cut out but has a promising talent in sophomore pitcher TJ Avery, also a threat at the plate.
Selah again figures to be the power in the league with six returning first-team selections, including big-hitting junior outfielder Kurt Lindemann (.446, 4HR, 34 RBI).
Othello and Ellensburg graduated most of their starters but are reloading, not rebuilding. The Bulldogs are led by first-team senior outfielder Kramer Ferrell (5 HR, 22 RBI, 5 SB).
Othello, meanwhile, will be led by senior Mando Deleon, a second-team all-league utility choice (3-0 as pitcher, .365 at the plate as a shortstop). Junior center fielder Caleb Garza (.439) also will see time on the mound.
Prosser moved into the pack of contenders last season and should remain there behind ace pitcher T.J. Finn (6-3, 3.50 ERA) and infielder Craig Gustafson (.431), both second-team selections.
Grandview's Erik Sauve already has proven his toughness, coming back from taking a line drive to the face to pitch in his team's next outing.
Who's the favorite? Depends on who you ask.
Some coaches like Burbank and Connell, others Kiona-Benton. Some a combination of all three, some all six.
Burbank has big shoes to fill in replacing Mr. Everything, Neal Schuck, who hit .652 last season and was 7-0 on the mound with a 1.56 ERA to share player of the year honors with Warden's Arty Reyes. A good start is shortstop Dylan Smith, who was fourth in the league in hitting at .455 and led in RBIs with 29. Meanwhile, Dylan Bertsch is the league's top returning pitcher (7-1, 1.75 ERA, 49K in 48 IP).
Ki-Be's big arm is Matt Mason (4-3, 2.05 ERA), and Daniel Deaton gives the Bears plenty of hitting (.368) and pitching (6-2, 4.54 ERA).
Connell's top returning hitter is junior Drew Jenks (.367), while River View will rely heavily on top pitcher Terry Tracy.