Western Oregon Favorite To Capture GNAC Baseball Title
Western Oregon finished 2017 with a 31-15 record and finished 4.5 games ahead of Central Washington in the GNAC standings at 27-12.
Western Oregon finished 2017 with a 31-15 record and finished 4.5 games ahead of Central Washington in the GNAC standings at 27-12.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – After capturing both the regular season title and GNAC championship last year, Western Oregon is picked yet again to win the conference in the 2018 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll.

The Wolves, under acting head coach Mike McInerney, received two first-place votes to finish with 30 points in the poll. Western Oregon clinched the regular season by 4.5 games and outscored opponents 26-10 in the GNAC Championships to claim its 14th conference title in program history.

Closely behind the Wolves is Montana State Billings, a team that won 23 games under first-year head coach Aaron Sutton. Picked second with 29 points, the Yellowjackets are one of four teams to receive a first-place vote. Montana State Billings tied for third last season and went 0-2 in the conference tournament. Central Washington is picked third with 24 points while Northwest Nazarene is picked fourth (21 points).

Rounding out the coaches poll was Saint Martin’s (fifth, 16 pts.) and Concordia (sixth, 7 pts.).

For the second season in a row, the GNAC Championships will include four teams after being a three-team tournament up until the 2017 season. The GNAC Championships will be hosted by Central Washington on May 10-11 in Ellensburg, Wash. This will be the first time in the tournament’s six-year history that the Wildcats will host the event.

Western Oregon re-claimed the GNAC title last season after ending 2016 in second place. Despite hitting a rough patch midway through the 2017 campaign, the Wolves bounced back to win six straight games in early April to edge Central Washington for the regular sesaon title. Western Oregon has won the GNAC title in three of the past five seasons. On Wednesday, the Wolves opened up the year ranked No. 7 in the NCBWA (National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association) Division II West Region Preseason Poll.

Pitching was a mainstay for Western Oregon as it led the GNAC in earned run average (4.35) and saves (14) while allowing the fewest hits (369), runs (209), earned runs (181) and walks (157). Depsite the loss of ace Brady Miller to the Major League Baseball draft, the Wolves return four starting pitchers, highlighted by seniors Cam Walker, Jake Simmons and sophomore Connor McCord. The seniors combined for eight starts in 19 appearances while McCord went 2-2 in six starts as a pitcher and 25 as a first baseman. He was named the 2017 GNAC Freshman of the Year after hitting .312 with 26 RBI and compiling a 4.37 ERA.

Of the 19 returners, five are position starters. First Team All-GNAC a season ago, junior catcher Justin Wakem was second in the league with a .368 batting average with five doubles and 21 RBI. Senior infielder Jay Leverett was also selected for First Team All-GNAC honors after recording 43 hits, 12 doubles and 39 runs for a .309 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage. Leading the team with 51 hits, senior infielder Nyles Nygaard hit .317 with 33 RBI and 12 extra-base hits.

Montana State Billings (23-29, 21-19) finished the 2017 regular season tied for third, but return the most starters out of the six GNAC teams. The Yellowjackets finished the regular season strong, winning nine of their last 11 games heading into the GNAC Championships. Despite the loss of four All-GNAC players, the Yellowjackets bring in a plethora of reinforcements, including nine transfers.

In his second year with MSUB, Sutton will look to build upon his team’s GNAC postseason appearance. The Yellowjackets opened the tournament with a 4-2 loss to Western Oregon followed by a 4-3 defeat to Northwest Nazarene. Montana State Billings has made the conference tournament each of the last three seasons.

The Yellowjackets will look to emulate its 2015 and 2016 seasons where they came away with the program’s only two GNAC regular-season titles. Senior Ryan Myers earned Honorable Mention NCBWA All-West Region and Second Team All-GNAC distinction last season after hitting .300 with 11 home runs, 39 RBI and a .623 slugging percentage in 44 games. The Yellowjackets are further bolstered by the return of Second Team All-GNAC selections in junior outfielder Jalen Garcia and sophomore Caje Golden. Garcia was second on the team in hitting (.327) and slugging percentage (.503) while Golden appeared in all but two games as a reliable glove at shortstop.

Ending the regular season in second last year, Central Washington (30-23, 23-17 GNAC) looks to appear in the GNAC Championships for the second time in a row. The Wildcats have some key holes to fill with the losses of First Team All-GNAC selections Dylan Freyre, Jake Levin and Conor Plaisance. The team, however, brings back a strong pitching core and six position starters.

Senior Mackenzie Gaul terrorized opposing hitters, earning Second Team ABCA All-West Region and First Team All-GNAC honors along with being named the GNAC Pitcher of the Year. Gaul compiled a league-best 3.18 earned run average and went 6-2 with three shutouts, 72 strikeouts and three complete games while holding hitters to a .251 batting average. Sophomore JJ Asinas will look to build upon his impressive inaugural campaign. The sophomore went 2-2 in seven starts and recorded a complete game against Concordia on April 9. He allowed 46 hits and struckout 24 batters. Pacing the Wildcats on offense will be James Smith III, who was Honorable Mention All-GNAC a year ago. In 53 appearances, Smith III hit .286 with seven home runs, 35 RBI and five stolen bases.

Northwest Nazarene (25-29, 21-19) finished in a tie for third with MSUB and was just one win away from winning its second consecuvtive conference title. Falling 9-1 to Western Oregon in the GNAC Championship final, Northwest Nazarene won just one contest in its final six regular-season games. It will also have to replace one of the best players the GNAC has ever seen in Billy King, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays after a senior year that saw him earn First Team All-GNAC and All-West Region honors.

The Nighthawks will also have to fill the void left by All-GNAC selections Brady Baker, Jaramy Jacobs and Colton McCluskey. They will rely on the services of their lone returning starting pitcher, senior Ross Clevenger, who earned All-GNAC honors after going 6-3 with 86.2 innings pitched and 64 strikeouts. At the plate, oufielder and First Team All-GNAC pick Casey Sheehan returns for his senior season after leading the Nighthawks with a .341 batting average, seven home runs and 15 stolen bases. Junior first baseman Kyle Redford finished 2017 with a .265 average with five home runs and a .524 slugging percentage.

Picked fifth, Saint Martin’s (17-30, 14-25 GNAC) brings back a strong core that consists of six position starters and five starting pitchers. Senior outfielder Steven Sordahl was a Second Team All-GNAC pick and is the Saints’ top returning hitter with a .348 average in 42 games, 55 hits and 23 RBI. The trio of Aaron Shoup, Luke Hare and Adam Eskil look to build upon a season in which all three were named to the All-GNAC team. Shoup went 5-3 in 12 starts with a 4.60 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 76.1 innings while Hare compiled a 3-3 record in 36.2 innings and a 1.96 ERA. Producing both at the plate and on the mound, Eskil finished with three saves and 19 strikeouts while hitting .292 with eight home runs and 37 RBI.

Picked sixth, Concordia (13-27, 15-35 GNAC) is hoping that its nine returning position starters and a heavy recruiting class can take the Cavs to their first GNAC Championships appearance since joining the conference in 2016. Juniors Mitch Bevacqua and Eddie Vasquez were Honorable Mention All-GNAC selections and look to pace the Cavaliers’ offense. Bevacqua hit .284 for five home runs and scored 22 runs while Vasquez batted .298 with 16 RBI and 28 runs. Concordia looks to bolster its roster for the next two seasons with 11 transfers and three freshman. Of the 11 transfers, 10 have experience playing at the community college level.

The 2018 campaign begins during the first weekend of February when Northwest Nazarene and Central Washington take the road in non-conference games. Western Oregon, Montana State Billings and Concordia start its slate the following week while Saint Martin’s visits Hawaii Hilo on Feb., 11, for a three-game swing. Conference play begins on Fri., Mar. 2, when Central Washington visits Northwest Nazarene.

Pos. Team (1st Place Votes) Overall
GNAC Record
1. Western Oregon (2) 31-15 27-12 (1st) 30
2. Montana State Billings (1) 23-29 21-19 (T3rd) 29
3. Central Washington (1) 30-23 23-17 (2nd) 24
4. Northwest Nazarene (1) 25-29 21-19 (T3rd) 21
5. Saint Martin's 17-30 14-25 (5th) 16
6. Concordia 15-35 13-27 (6th) 7