At the start of last season, The Dalles Riverhawks had a roster of six sophomores, a freshman, a junior and five seniors, who combined to clinch a state play-in spot for the second consecutive year.
Head coach Steve Sugg did not emphasize winning or losing, instead focusing on growth and progression with his young and inexperienced group.
Even with the youth, The Dalles had six players named to the all-Columbia River Conference team, led by Dalles Seufalemua and Dominic Smith, who were selected as first-team recipients.
Sophomore shortstop Ben Nelson, along with seniors Jordan Wetmore, Henry Lee and Jose Gonzalez, were all picked as second teamers.
With the departure of those veterans, there is still a talented core of athletes who played summer ball and got those critical repetitions ahead of 2019.
Added to Seufalemua (.455 league average), Smith (.351) and Nelson (.405), TD has Conner Baughn, Baily Hajicek, Ben Schanno, Mac Abbas, Michael Armstrong, Trenton Schacher, Colton Baughn and several others poised to break out in a major way.
“They are bigger than they were last year and hopefully they’ve matured a little bit,” Sugg said. “Last year, they played like sophomores, so hopefully that maturity level is there. I think this summer, they played together in a lot of games and it really bonded the core. And that whole team is back, so I am looking forward to getting them on the field. Once we get the rust off, it is going to take us a while with this weather, but once we can get on the field and actually get some things done, we will be ok.”
Offensively, the Riverhawks scored 100 runs, which was 65 fewer than 2017, and combined for a .263 team batting average on 158 hits, to go along with 77 walks, 28 hit by pitches and 150 strikeouts on 725 plate appearances.
Conner Baughn thinks the offense has the potential to be much improved, because of their balance from top to bottom, especially with the speed and hitting ability many of the players boast.
“If we can stay hot, we know we can’t be stopped,” Baughn said. “We need to stay hot and hit. Our lineup is good all the way through. We just want to put the ball in play and have good at-bats.”
On the mound, TD’s pitching staff allowed 200 runs, 120 earned, on 175 hits across 150 1/3 innings for an earned run average of 5.59, with 164 strikeouts, 151 walks and 10 quality starts.
One of the key arms was Wetmore, who went 1-2 in league with 22 runs allowed, 10 earned, on 23 hits with 38 strikeouts and 15 walks in 26 2/3 innings pitched.
In 10 starts on the year, Wetmore was 2-7 with six quality starts and two complete games, and a 2.61 earned average in 51 innings.
“Pitching-wise, we don’t really have a No. 1 guy that will shut a team down for seven innings. That may develop, but we don’t have that right now,” Sugg said. “We are going to be a pitch-by-committee staff. I have six or seven guys that can actually pitch, and we are going to have to be creative in how we work our pitchers. We are probably going to use three or four guys every game and try to keep the pitch counts low and try to them off-balanced.”
Armstrong pointed to attitude as one of the team’s characteristics they need to improve upon.
When a team finishes with a 6-19 record, there could be fractures in the locker room, but they had a summer of 50 games and used that time to create a family bond.
“Last year, we didn’t have that good of a winning season, but one thing I learned is that no matter how much you are losing, it is important that we are always having fun and trying our hardest,” Armstrong said. “We have to use that mindset this year, so we are going to come in positive, ready to go, looking to win and then we will just build on that.”
The Dalles has clinched postseason berths in back-to-back seasons and now there is a level of expectation that needs to be met.
Smith knows what this team has, and they have set lofty goals to reach.
They are not unrealistic, however.
“Having those expectations makes us want to work harder, work better, get faster and everything else that we need to get done,” Smith said. “Wanting to play for a championship or try to get to the state playoffs, it puts you into high gear and it puts you into hyper-focus mode as we go out there every time to the best of our ability.”
The Dalles played two games earlier this week and will have two more road dates before heading to Arizona on March 23.
At 5 p.m. Monday, TD travels to Forest Grove, and then they head to Gresham to take on Centennial at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“It is really important for us to get off to a fast start,” Smith said. “Winning those first two games will give us some mojo for the next few games, which is going to get us boosting and boosting and that will prepare us for the regular season. We are going to dominate the regular season and we are going to take that into the state playoffs.”