PHS senior David Griffith returns to anchor the infield at second base and also as one of the tean’s top pitchers. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Finishing last season with an 8-2 record in May, an outright league title and advancement to the Class 4A semifinals, the Philomath High School baseball program wouldn’t mind picking up right where it left off.

But the Warriors return only a handful of starters on a roster dominated by underclassmen. Veteran coach Levi Webber sees a lot of raw talent among those youngsters and expresses confidence that they can be effectively developed.

“What we lack in experience, we gain in enough talent with the young kids so it’s going to be competitive,” Webber, in his 14th season as head coach, said Monday afternoon before practice. “It’s going to be competitive to get time on the field, even for the guys returning because we’ve got some good, young kids that are going to push those guys. I’m really looking forward to how that plays out.”

The Warriors lost eight seniors to graduation and return just three full-time starters and a part-time platoon player from a year ago.

“Pretty much every season, I kind of feel like you never really know what you’re going to get,” Webber said. “Even going into last year with as senior-heavy of a class that we had and good talent, I thought we were poised to have a pretty good season. And it ended up being a pretty good season but it started off really slow.”

Webber has seen that happen more than once. In addition to last year’s team, he remembers another senior-dominant squad in 2014 that also had a slow start.

“Both teams won league titles but it was a long haul to get to where we needed to be,” Webber said.

Webber’s point was that he never knows for sure how a team will perform as it launches into a season. Unlike those 2014 and 2022 teams, this year’s version has a much younger feel to it.

“We don’t return as much but we have a lot of pretty good, young players,” Webber said. “So I think we have a little bit of experience and then we have a lot of no experience. It’s going to be a young team but the upside is really there.”

Five seniors back in uniform include David Griffith, Ty May, Brayden Shenk, Chad Russell and Silas Barton. Just two juniors are in the program with Kash Lindsey and Mason Stearns. And then the other 22 players are sophomores and freshmen.

“If we can get all those guys (seniors and juniors) to buy in and show the young guys how to go about their business the right way, then we have a chance to bring them along quicker,” Webber said. “Hopefully we’ll be right where we need to be at the end of the season.”

Griffith returns this season as the team’s most-experienced starting pitcher.

“He’s been nursing along a little bit of an arm issue but he threw on Friday and looked really good,” Webber said. “So we were excited to see that and he seems to be coming around to where he needs to be.”

Shenk also returns to the mound for the Warriors after contributing last season as a reliever.

“He was the first out of the pen and he’ll move most likely into a starting role this year,” Webber said.

After Griffith and Shenk, the Warriors have very little varsity experience at the position. Among those who could see innings are May, Stearns, Lindsey and sophomore Joe Barnes.

“We have a lot of options, it’s just a matter of whether or not they can pitch to their ability,” Webber said. “We know what we’re going to get out of Dave and Brayden — they’re going to come in, they’re going to pound strikes out, not necessarily overpower but we’re going to throw a ton of strikes and we’ll play the D behind them. Outside of that, we’ll kind of see where we’re at when those other guys get out there.”

Behind the plate, Webber’s looking at three prospects for the starting job. Sophomore Grant Niemann showed progress at catcher during summer league play and could be the frontrunner to start if he’s medically cleared and 100% following a knee injury. Barton, one of those seniors, caught a few innings with last year’s varsity. Freshman Rocco De La Rosa is also in the mix.

First baseman Ty May will again hold down first base duties and could also see time on the mound. Coach Levi Miller is entering his 14th season leading the program. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Going around the infield, May returns at first base and Griffith at second base — both of those first-team all-conference picks last season — with Stearns moving to shortstop. The starter at third base remains up in the air.

“We’re expecting Dave to be our anchor in the middle because he’s been there — this will be his third year at second,” Webber said about Griffith. “It’s nice to have a guy who has been in the middle of the infield for three years to solidify some things up there.”

Stearns played third base last year and was second-team all-conference but moves into the 6 hole with longtime starter Cameron Ordway graduating. As to who plays third, Webber said Lindsey is probably the frontrunner heading into the season but sophomore Brady Russell and freshman Rocco De La Rosa are in contention for innings.

Chad Russell will likely play first when May is on the mound and at second when Griffith is pitching, Lindsey will step in. Freshman Wiley Griffith or sophomore Logan Matthews will be considered for shortstop when Stearns pitches.

In the outfield, Webber said there are decisions to be made as the season progresses. In center, sophomore Silas Pittman and freshman Caleb Babcock have both looked strong, the coach said.

“Caleb has looked really good so far both in the cages and running around in the outfield — he’s a big physical kid that can run,” Webber said. “Silas is a kid that can really run and go get baseballs so both of those guys are going to be able to cover some ground.”

The starting left fielder will likely be either Babcock or Pittman, whoever isn’t the starter in center, Webber said. Also vying for time at the corner outfield positions are Chad Russell, Shenk and Barnes.

“All of them do a pretty good job in the outfield as far as defensively — they can all move a little bit and have pretty good range and can track down balls,” Webber said. “It’s just kind of going to be whoever is swinging good at that time and will give us the best chance (at the plate).”

Senior Brayden Shenk will move into a starting role on the mound after working last season as the top reliever out of the bullpen. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Hampering efforts to get the young roster important preseason workouts has been wet weather.

“We’re supposed to play at home on Wednesday and we’ve yet to even step on our field outside of playing catch in the outfield and the outfielders taking fly balls,” Webber said. “So it’s been a really, really slow go so far. But like I said, I like our kids and I think we have an opportunity to be pretty stinking good as long as we progress the way that we should.”

Webber likes the program’s numbers, which as of Tuesday were sitting at 29.

“It’s going to allow us to carry probably 11 full-time varsity guys with four guys that’ll swing back and forth between varsity and JV,” Webber said. “They’re all good kids, they all do a pretty good job of doing what we ask them to do and coming out every day and competing and getting better. So, you know, they’re all giving themselves an opportunity to play quite a bit this year.”

The team’s longer nonconference schedule could factor into the Warriors being more prepared for league play. The realigned Oregon West this season went from seven to six teams, which evened out schedules and pushed back those conference-opening series.

“We actually have four full weeks of preseason, which means we don’t have to feel like we need to play a bunch of games right away,” Webber said. “We’re supposed to play one this week, we’ve got two next week, we’ve got three over spring break and then we’ve got three the following week so we were able to space out the preseason schedule, which is helpful, especially coming off basketball with four guys coming off that grind.”

The season is scheduled to open Wednesday with a 4:30 p.m. game at home against Taft.

Varsity assistants under Webber will be JJ Faxon (pitching coach) and Lance Faxon. Logan Hansen will head up the junior varsity team with help from Ron Morella. Taylor Burner will help out when possible.

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

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