Baseball Preview: Cougars Look To Build On Strong 2006 Season

Feb. 14, 2007

PULLMAN, Wash. - Following a 2006 season in which the Washington State University baseball team recorded its most wins in 15 years, the Cougars enter the 2007 campaign with the majority of its roster intact and the feeling last year's success was not enough.

'We were able to make a big jump in wins from the previous year, but we wanted and expected more,' said second-year WSU head coach Donnie Marbut, who led the Cougars to a 36-23 record last season. That record marked a 15-win improvement over 2005 and tied the greatest single-season improvement in school history.

Highlights from the 2006 season included 10 conference wins, the most for the Cougars since the Pacific-10 Conference went to a full round-robin format. The team also snapped a 23-game skid against Stanford, won the series against the Cardinal and USC for the first time since 1969, and earned its first national ranking since the 1994 season.

The statistics surprised many, but for Marbut, the year was a glimpse into where the Cougars want to be.

'What stood out most to me about last year wasn't the wins, but that we showed we can play with the best teams in the nation,' said Marbut. 'Now we need to take that next step and win more of those close games. We have another year of experience under our belt and our expectations are to not just compete, but to win every series we enter.'

Marbut begins his third season at the helm of the Cougar squad and fourth overall in the WSU program. After spending the 2004 season as an assistant coach, Marbut became the 14th head coach in the program's history before the 2005 season. Prior to his arrival, Marbut spent four seasons as head coach at Edmonds Community College, where he amassed a 152-38 record and a winning percentage of 80 percent. Included in that stretch were the 2002 and 2003 Northwest Athletic Association of Community College championships, highlighted by a 43-7 record in 2003, the best mark ever achieved in the NWAACC.

In his two seasons at WSU Marbut has compiled a 57-60 record, coached two All-Americans (Jared Prince and Jay Miller), seen his team post a 2.84 grade point average, the highest ever by a Cougar baseball team, while recruiting and signing the best high school student-athletes in the state of Washington. In the last two recruiting classes, WSU signed 25 total players, 23 from the state of Washington.

'As a group it's a joy to go to practice each day with the group of coaches we have,' said Marbut. 'They are a very accomplished staff and with another year under our belt, everyone knows the program and knows how we want to do things. Each coach has their own personality, their own way of doing things and we have done a good job of meshing those together. The longer we can stay together the more continuity we build, and I think championship teams are built on continuity and it starts with the coaching staff.'

Returning for his third season on the staff is associate head coach Travis Jewett, who handles the Cougar hitters while also serving as recruiting coordinator. A 1993 graduate of WSU, Jewett brings a wealth of experience to the program, serving three seasons as an assistant coach at both Washington (2002-04) and Gonzaga (1999-2001) prior to his Cougar appointment.

'Coach Jewett is in his third year in program as we came in here together,' said Marbut. 'In that time the offense has really begun to make strides and he's done a great job of recruiting the types of players and types of hitters that thrive under his scheme.'

Gregg Swenson begins his second season as the Cougar pitching coach, working with a talented but very young group of hurlers. In 2006 the staff ERA was 4.87, the lowest at WSU since the 1991 season. Swenson arrived at WSU after spending the previous four years as an assistant coach at cross-state rival Washington, where he worked alongside Jewett. Swenson began his collegiate coaching career at Tacoma Community College in 1996, where he spent five seasons coaching against Marbut at Edmonds CC.

'Swenson has really taken the program to a different level in terms of having a plan and a process,' said Marbut. 'That position can be tough because sometimes he's on his own while Coach Jewett, Coach Dorey and I are working with the offensive. He's brought a whole new attitude to that group. I believe in a short time that pitching is going to be the strength of Washington State baseball and he has a lot to do with that.'

Matt Dorey also begins his second season as the Cougars volunteer assistant coach, where his duties include working with the hitters and infielders. Dorey played one season alongside Marbut when the two were at Portland State during the 1996 season. He arrived at WSU after spending the previous two years as assistant coach at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore. Last summer he served as head coach of the Mat-Su Miners of the Alaskan Baseball League.

'We are very fortunate to have Coach Dorey back for another year,' said Marbut. 'The volunteer position can be a rotating door and he had opportunities to go elsewhere but decided to stay because he wanted to see us play in the postseason. He's done a good job assisting Coach Jewett with the hitters. He's definitely a player's coach, which is an important part of the job.'

With the graduation of All-American and career hits leader Jay Miller, the outfield will be anchored around preseason All-American Jared Prince. Prince, a sophomore co-captain who last season became the first Cougar to hit .400 (.401) since John Olerud did so in 1988, led WSU in all three triple crown categories in 2006. A third-team All-American and first-team Freshman All-American, Prince set freshman records for hits (83), RBIs (58) and batting average (.401), the latter among players with 100 or more at-bats.

'Jared is a big part of our team and in his first year proved what he can do at this level,' said Marbut. 'He is one of the best hitters in the Pac-10, if not the country, and will be a middle of the lineup hitter for us all season.'

Seniors Ryan Krauser and Zach Borba look to round out the starting outfield. Krauser, a transfer from Lower Columbia College prior to his junior year, did not play until the conference opener at Stanford last season due to elbow surgery. Krauser added a spark to the outfield, hitting .363 for the year and established himself as a table-setter at the top of the Cougar lineup.

'Ryan came in last year and made an immediate impact at the top of our lineup,' said Marbut 'He has good speed in the outfield and we will count on him in the leadoff spot to set the table for the middle of the lineup.'

Borba arrived on campus at the start of the season after transferring from UNLV, where he hit .324 with 25 RBI last season.

'Zack Borba is a really good defensive centerfielder,' said Marbut. 'He's very talented, a good defender, and is going to be a very productive player for us.'

Another option for Marbut is to put junior Paul Gran in the outfield lineup. The athletic Gran, who is scheduled to be WSU's starting shortstop, could easily find time in centerfield where his speed and strong arm could bolster the defensive.

Other returning outfielders who will look for playing time include juniors Simi Reynolds and Scott Suttmeier, sophomore Kyle Hinrichs and freshman Matt Fanelli. Reynolds hit .333 in 33 games in 2006 and gives Marbut another left-handed hitting option with a lot of speed. Suttmeier is the ultimate utility player who adds a defensive presence and can play both outfield and infield positions. Hinrichs saw limited duty last year but has the ability to play multiple positions while Fanelli is another versatile player who will look to find playing time his first season.

'Scott Suttmeier has been a very valuable player for us the last couple of years, playing a number of different positions, though we see him mainly playing the outfield this season' Marbut said. 'Simi Reynolds had a good fall and he gives us speed and a little pop from left side. Kyle Hinrichs is a quality player who has chance to be productive and make some noise before his career is over.

'Matt Fanelli had a great fall,' Marbut continued/ 'We see big things from Matt in the future. He's big, strong, fast, and had a great fall for us. Down the road he is going to be a really good player.'

The infield is a veteran-laden unit with the ability to post huge numbers, and might be considered the team's strength. The unit will center on junior first baseman Jim Murphy, who started 58 of 59 games in 2006. Murphy, an All-Pac-10 honorable mention pick last season, hit .333 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs. Last summer he was named MVP of the New England Collegiate Baseball League as he led the league in hitting, slugging, RBIs and on-base percentage. Murphy is also set to move into the top spot on the career putouts list at WSU in less than three seasons, a testament to the defensive prowess of the Cougar infield.

'Jimmy has been a middle of order hitter for last two years,' Marbut said. 'What he did last year and over the summer shows he's one of the better hitters in the conference, as well as the country. He has tremendous power and obviously we count on him to drive in runs. Defensively, he is one of the better first basemen in the league.'

Backing up Murphy at first will be the freshman Fanelli, and junior Bryan Yates, who played in only games last season.

'Bryan is a solid defender either at first or third,' said Marbut. 'He is a great Coug, a great team guy. His attributes don't always show up in the stat book but they are valuable to the success of our program.'

Co-captain Jeff Miller returns at third base for his senior campaign. Miller, an All-Pac-10 honorable mention pick the last two seasons, batted .285 last season, finishing third on the team in home runs (7) and second in stolen bases (14).

'I see Jeff having another strong year for us,' said Marbut of his co-captain. 'He is starting to come into his own as a player. He is a solid offensive player, can steal some sacks, and plays a good game of catch. He is very typical of the players we are trying to recruit: a tough, smart and heady type of player.'

Freshman Michael Weber will back up Miller at third. Weber was an All-Metro League shortstop last season at O'Dea High School in Seattle.

'Michael is a tough player with a nice, left-handed swing,' said Marbut. 'With a little playing time he has a chance to be a special player in a year or two.'

At shortstop Paul Gran returns for his junior campaign after hitting. 299 with 17 doubles and 13 stolen bases last year. One of the more talented players on the squad, Gran has all the tools and is versatile enough to play more than one position.

'Paul is very flexible for us as a guy who can play a lot of positions,' said Marbut. 'I thought Paul had a solid year last year and expect even better things this season. He has all the tools and if he continues to take his game to next level as I think he will, he can be one of the elite players in this league.'

A pair of freshmen, Cody Bartlett and John Ashenbrenner, will look for playing time behind Gran. Bartlett was a first-team, All-State shortstop last season out of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., while Ashenbrenner is a versatile athlete who earned second-team, All-State honors last season while playing at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, Wash.

'Cody and Josh are very talented players but very different. Both are very accomplished high school players, Cody had the better fall while Josh had an edge during winter. Both have proven they deserve the opportunity to play shortstop at this level and will push for playing time.'

At second base the Cougars return sophomore Travis Coulter, a Freshman All-American last season who batted .345 and led WSU in runs scored while earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention honors. Coulter started 54 of 57 games, had a team-long 20-game hitting streak and hit a team-best .331 during Pac-10 play.

'Travis had a great freshman year, and quite honestly, we were not sure he was going to be that good that quick,' said Marbut. 'Travis showed last season that he was one of better second basemen in the league. He came back this year a little bigger, a little stronger and a little faster. Overall his game is better than last year. He's just a really good baseball player who is fun to watch.'

Junior Matt Thomas will also find time at second base. Thomas hit .240 last season, starting 14 games at shortstop while connecting for two home runs and nine RBIs.

'Matt's another good utility player who can play every infield position,' said Marbut. 'I'm confident Matt will contribute for us when given the chance this season.'

The Cougars will be solid behind the plate with a mix of veteran experience and youthful talent. Sophomore Greg Lagreid, who started 38 games at catcher last season, returns as the incumbent. Lagreid hit .183 with 14 RBIs while throwing out 14 baserunners during his freshman season.

'Greg is another guy we expect big things from,' said Marbut. 'He was thrown in the fire last year and started about 80 percent of the games as a true freshman. If you look around league he is one of better defensive catchers and he's a guy we are leaning on that will continue to get better as he gets more experience.'

Senior Mike Gilbert, freshman Jay Ponciano and junior Nick Hall round out the catching corp. Gilbert hit .357 last season in 40 games, 12 as a starter. Ponciano was a first-team, All-State catcher last season at Hudson Bay high School in Vancouver, Wash. Hall saw action in 14 games last year, going 5-for-20 with one home run and five RBIs.

'All three players are very steady, productive and bring something different to the table,' said Marbut. 'Mike had the best fall of any catcher as he really swung the bat well. We moved Nick behind the plate full time this year and if he can get his bat going, he will bring some lefthanded sock behind the plate. Jay is another accomplished high school player who is a little behind after missing the fall with a foot injury. He's a switch hitter who defensively is like Lagreid in that he can really catch and throw. He's a very good athlete and a heady player.'

The pitching staff is as deep as it has ever been under Marbut, led by a trio of returning starters in seniors Wayne Daman Jr. and Nick Ison, along with sophomore Jared Prince.

Daman is a three-year letterwinner who posted a 6-4 record with a 4.50 ERA last season. He won his first five starts and led the team with 69 strikeouts. Ison was off to a 4-1 start last season before suffering a season-ending injury in his conference-opener at Stanford. Opponents hit just .197 against him before the injury and looks to be healthy once again heading into the year. Prince tied for the team lead with six wins, against two losses, while being one of the top two-ways players in college baseball.

'Daman and Prince were in the rotation from start to finish last year and Ison was as good as anyone we had until the injury,' said Marbut. 'Those are three nice guys to have. Two seniors we think are going to have professional careers who know how to pitch and we are going to learn on for big innings this year. Jared had to pitch in some big games on Friday nights as a freshman last year and it shows what type of kid you have for him to be able to do that. It's not an easy thing to do.'

Another pair of veteran returnees that will play a key role in WSU's success this season are junior lefthanders Steve Kost and Jayson Miller. Kost appeared in 22 games last season with a 2.95 ERA while Miller had a 2-1 record in 19 appearances, recording a better than 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

'Both Steve and Jayson had numerous innings last year and were very reliable,' said Marbut. 'We can see Jayson as a long reliever and even a starter for us this season and Steve we want to give him the ball late in games because we have a lot of confidence in him.'

Two other young lefthanders who will play a significant role this year are sophomore Russ Humes and Matt Way. Humes went 1-0 with a save in 12 appearances last season, most of them coming late in the year. Way was 1-1 in 13 games last year, recording 20 strikeouts in 24 innings, despite not pitching the final month of the season. 'We like both Ross and Matt a lot,' said Marbut. 'Both have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation and be strong contributors this year in our program.'

Another pair of lefthanders looking for time on the mound are sophomore Adam Dentz and junior Garrett Kimbrel. Dentz worked in two games last season as a freshman while Kimbrel is a converted outfielder who has not pitched at the collegiate level before last fall.

'Adam had a little bit of time as a freshman which was valuable experience for him,' said Marbut. 'Now he needs to take the next step and if he can do that he will give a boost to our bullpen. Garrett is the wildcard of the bunch. He might have the best stuff of anybody on our team. Obviously pitching is new to him but he has really showed an electric arm. If he can come along and help us this season that gives us another option we would be very happy to have.'

Another veteran in the bullpen is senior righthander Nick Cebula, who has led the team with 23 appearances last season, posting a 1-0 record with two saves. 'Nick has battled some injuries during the fall and we need to get him healthy,' said Marbut. 'He has proven he can get people out in this league and if he can get healthy and throw strikes he will be a valuable arm out of the bullpen.'

Two returnees who have yet to pitch in a Cougar uniform are freshman Matt Crowe and junior Tommy Tribbett. 'Both have battled injuries with Matt coming off Tommy John surgery and has worked his tail off to get back in shape,' said Marbut. 'Tommy Tribbett had a good summer and was progressing on the mound before an injury last summer that kept him out until January, which has put him behind. He has a little different arm angle and if he can get healthy he can definitely get people out.'

The Cougars have a bevy of young arms looking to make an impact this season. From the right side Ryan Graves, Seth Harvey, Barrett Kanyer, Connor Lambert, Zach Miller and Michael Ratigan all will look for playing time. Another freshman, left-hander Carsten Bocchi, will also look to make an impact on the mound.

'Carsten is another accomplished high school pitcher who missed his entire senior year. We are slowly bringing him back, but he is a guy with big upside,' said Marbut. 'Four other freshmen have really turned heads this winter: Barrett Kanyer, Michael Ratigan, Connor Lambert and Seth Harvey. I see all four of these guys pushing for playing time early this season.

'Two other freshmen, Ryan Graves and Zach Miller, need to get more experience but I see them having strong futures at WSU,' Marbut added.

The Cougars open the 2007 season with back-to-back road trips at Cal State Northridge followed by a three-game series at perennial national power Texas. The Longhorns, ranked No. 7 in the Baseball America preseason poll, hold a 7-4 series advantage over WSU, though the teams have not met since the 1991 season.

WSU then opens its home schedule at the Banana Belt Tournament where they face Utah Valley State, Southern Utah and Air Force sandwiched around a game at Lewis-Clark State. The Banana Belt marks the only tournament the Cougars participate in during the 2007 season after capturing three titles last season. Following a three-game series Mar. 8-10 at San Jose State, WSU opens its longest homestand of the season, hosting Rider and Illinois-Chicago in three-game series.

WSU opens Pacific-10 Conference play Mar. 23-25 against rival Washington at Bailey-Brayton Field. Other conference home series include Arizona and Stanford before closing the home schedule May 18-20 against UCLA. WSU will also host Brigham Young in a two-game nonconference series Mar 27-28, while hosting single games against Gonzaga, twice, and Lewis-Clark State.

The Cougars will travel for conference series at California, Arizona State, Southern California and USC, and then close out the regular season with a three-game series at UC Davis, May 25-27.
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