Dances With Wolves: WOU Picked To Win GNAC Baseball Title
Western Oregon finished 2018 with a 27-21 record and a GNAC Championships title.
Western Oregon finished 2018 with a 27-21 record and a GNAC Championships title.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

PORTLAND, Ore. – Fresh off its second GNAC Championships title in as many years, Western Oregon has been picked at the top of the 2019 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll.

Under the direction of seventh-year head coach Kellen Walker, the Wolves received three first-place votes and finished with 33 points in the poll. The team finished last season with a record of 27-21 and outscored its opponents 30-21 in the GNAC Championships to grab its fourth tournament title since its inception in 2013.

Following closely behind WOU is Montana State Billings, the defending GNAC regular season champions. Picked second with 31 points, the Yellowjackets received two first-place votes. Head coach Aaron Sutton’s team finished in first place last season with a record of 33-18.

Central Washington is picked third with 21 points and one first-place vote, while Concordia was selected fourth (17 points). Rounding out the poll is Northwest Nazarene (13 points) and Saint Martin’s (11 points).

For the third straight season, the GNAC Championships will feature four teams after being a three-team tournament prior to the 2017 season. The tournament will be hosted by Concordia on May 8-10 in Portland.

Western Oregon’s 2018 campaign ended in what has become a familiar scene for the program - a dogpile at the culmination of the GNAC Championships. Despite struggling to gain momentum early in the season, the club regained its footing and competed at a high level from the month of March onward. It recorded six shutout victories in conference play, ranking No. 19 nationally and doubling the amount of the next-closest GNAC team.

A dominant pitching staff carried WOU throughout the year, leading the conference in earned run average (4.64), opponent batting average (.263) and fewest hits allowed (405). The staff returns three key starters in upperclassmen Alex Roth, Jacob Fricke and Gabe Benavides. A First Team All-GNAC selection a year ago, Roth recorded a 5-1 record and a 3.77 ERA. Fricke (3-2, 4.01 ERA) received Second Team All-GNAC honors while Benavides also won three games in his first season after transfering in from Division I Grand Canyon.

Of the team’s 25 returners, five are position starters. That group is led by catcher Jared McDonald, a First Team All-GNAC and Honorable Mention NCBWA All-West Region selection a year ago. McDonald finished the 2018 campaign with a .349 batting average while driving in 35 runs.

Montana State Billings (32-18, 29-11 GNAC) finished 2018 on top of the conference standings, giving the program its third regular-season league title in the past four years. A strong 13-3 record in the month of April helped the Yellowjackets lock up the championship prior to the final week of conference play. This year’s club will lose five All-GNAC players from that team but does return four position starters and two starting pitchers in addition to bringing in nine transfers.

Now in his third year with MSUB, Sutton will be relying on senior Steen Fredrickson (2018 First Team All-GNAC, 4.67 ERA) to bolster a young pitching staff. At the plate, another pair of First Team All-GNAC seniors are back in outfielder Jalen Garcia and infielder Conner Linebarger. Garcia hit at a .351 clip in 2018 with 51 RBI, while Linebarger wasn’t far behind with a .333 average and 44 RBI.

Finishing the regular season in third-place a year ago, Central Washington (27-26, 21-19 GNAC) will look to make it back to the GNAC Championships for a third straight season. The Wildcats lose just two key players from last year’s club while returing six starting pitchers and five position starters. Now in his 28th season in Ellensburg, head coach Desi Storey will also welcome in a trio of transfers on the mound to bolster his team’s pitching staff.

A pair of Honorable Mention All-GNAC honorees are back in outfielder Justin Hampson and sophomore Mitch Lesmeister. Hampson finsihed last season with a .327 batting average, while Lesmeister recorded 28 runs and a .294 batting average in his first year at CWU. On the mound, senior Connor Stevenson will lead a staff that carries plenty of experience into the 2019 campaign. The right-hander is coming off a season in which he posted a 4.40 ERA with 53 strikeouts.

Concordia (20-32, 19-21 GNAC) finished two games behind Central Washington last season but was able to grab the final berth in the GNAC Championships. A strong end to the regular season saw the Cavaliers clinch that postseason spot with victories in four of their final five games. A total of 21 players are back from that team but the club does lose one of the league’s top players in shortstop Andrew Barrera (First Team All-GNAC, NCBWA Second Team All-West Region).

Leading the CU pitching staff in 2019 will be senior Isaac Mitchum. The right-hander was a First Team All-GNAC selection a year ago after recording a 3-3 record and a 4.31 ERA. At the plate, a trio of returners in sophomore Dominic Enbody and seniors Trevor Huddleston and Jordan Farhat are back for Concordia. As a freshman last season, Enbody wowed with a .367 batting average.

Picked fifth, Northwest Nazarene (19-31, 17-23 GNAC) brings back six starting pitchers and five position starters from its 2018 roster. Junior second baseman Parker Price was a Second Team All-GNAC pick and is the Nighthawks’ top returning hitter with a .324 average to go along with 60 hits and 26 RBI. Following closely behind Price is first baseman Kyle Redford, who is coming off a junior campaign in which he hit at a .274 clip with 29 RBI. On the mound, seniors Jesse Hilyard and Greg Casper are back for NNU. Hilyard finished last season with a 3.93 ERA, while Casper (4.84 ERA, 68 strikeouts) held opponents to a .212 average.

Rounding out the poll, Saint Martin’s (11-37, 11-30 GNAC) will turn to a bevy of experienced players to lead the program back to the GNAC Championships for the first time since 2014. The Saints welcome back 22 players from the 2018 club and will look to a pair of key transfers and incoming freshman to aid in those efforts. Leading the bunch is senior Austin Feist, who is coming off a season in which he garnered First Team All-GNAC honors. The outfielder led SMU with a .320 batting average along with 30 RBI and six home runs a year ago.

The 2019 campaign begins on Friday, February 1 with Central Washington, Saint Martin’s and Concordia all lifting the lid on opening day. Conference play will start on Friday, March 1 when Northwest Nazarene travels to Portland to face the Cavaliers.

Pos. Team (1st Place Votes) Overall
GNAC Record
1. Western Oregon (3) 27-21 24-16 (2nd) 33
2. Montana State Billings (2) 33-18 29-11 (1st) 31
3. Central Washington (1) 27-26 21-19 (3rd) 21
4. Concordia 20-32 19-21 (4th) 17
5. Northwest Nazarene 19-31 17-23 (5th) 13
6. Saint Martin's 11-37 11-30 (6th) 11

Points awarded on 6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.

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