Nighthawks Tabbed To Repeat In Preseason Poll
Led by First Team All-GNAC and ABCA All-West Region pitcher Kyle Ethridge, Northwest Nazarene is poised to repeat as conference champions, according to GNAC coaches.
Led by First Team All-GNAC and ABCA All-West Region pitcher Kyle Ethridge, Northwest Nazarene is poised to repeat as conference champions, according to GNAC coaches.

Friday, January 21, 2022

PORTLAND, Ore. – After becoming the first GNAC team to win the Division II West Regional and appear at the Division II National Championships in 2021, GNAC coaches foresee more of the same in 2022 from Northwest Nazarene.

The Nighthawks earned four of five first-place votes to top the GNAC Preseason Baseball Coaches Poll with 24 points. Western Oregon, who Northwest Nazarene defeated in the West Regional championship game, is picked second with 19 points.

Central Washington garnered the final first-place vote and is third in the poll with 15 points, followed by Montana State Billings in fourth with 10 points and Saint Martin’s in fifth with seven points. The coaches projected all five teams to finish in the same order that they did in 2021.

Northwest Nazarene is coming off of the best season in school history and arguably in GNAC history in 2021. The Nighthawks went 21-3 in the conference season and swept through the GNAC Championships. After losing their first game at the regionals to Western Oregon, the Nighthawks reeled off three straight wins to become the first GNAC team ever to advance to the Division II National Championships in Cary, North Carolina. They were eliminated by 2019 national champion Tampa but finished in the top six and with a final overall record of 35-10.

While the Nighthawks lose some pieces, like third basemen Shawn Grandmont and 2021 GNAC home run king John Gonzalez, the core of that team is primarily intact for 2022. Former Boise State transfer Grant Kerry returns after winning the GNAC Newcomer of the Year award and earning First Team All-GNAC and All-West Region status and NCBWA Honorable Mention All-American honors in his first season with the Nighthawks. The outfielder hit .361 in 45 games with 11 doubles, 11 home runs and 52 RBI. His home runs and RBI are the most of any returning GNAC player.

The rest of the Nighthawks outfield will be equally dangerous. Senior Ryan Dearing earned Second Team All-GNAC and ABCA All-West Region honors after hitting .331 with 51 runs scored and a .464 on-base percentage. Dearing led the conference with 39 walks and 24 stolen bases in 2021. Senior Haden Keller hit .358 with 25 RBI and a .560 slugging percentage. Brothers Colton Moore, a senior, and Walker Moore, a sophomore, will nail down two infield positions for NNU. Colton was named First Team All-GNAC and Second Team All-West Region after hitting .263 with 43 runs and 42 RBI, while Walker hit .304 in 33 games with five doubles and seven stolen bases.

Northwest Nazarene should be loaded on the mound as well. They return a pair of First Team All-GNAC and All-Region pitchers in sophomore Kyle Ethridge, who compiled a 3.36 ERA in 69.2 innings pitched with 94 strikeouts against 17 walks, and senior Max Holtzclaw, who struck out 41 in 23.2 innings out of the bullpen. Senior Blake McFadden, who twirled a 1.99 ERA in 31.2 relief innings, gives the Nighthawks another powerhouse arm.

Western Oregon was neck-and-neck with NNU for much of the season, finishing 22-8 overall and 19-5 in the GNAC season. After missing the GNAC Championships due to COVID protocols, Western Oregon topped the Nighthawks and Azusa Pacific in the first two games of the NCAA West Regional before NNU rallied to eliminate the Wolves. The team will look different this year without Connor McCord, the reigning GNAC Player of the Year and batting champion.

But the Wolves do return the reigning GNAC Pitcher of the Year in junior Mike Peterson. In nine appearances, including eight starts, Peterson went 6-0 with a 3.31 ERA, allowing just 43 hits in 49 innings of work. The Wolves can make a claim to have two legitimate aces in the rotation with sophomore Matthew Dunaway, who made seven starts in 2021 and led all regular starting pitchers with a 3.06 ERA while holding opponents to a .175 batting average. He allowed just one home run in 32.1 innings.

Western Oregon also has their own set of brothers on the roster. Shortstop Derek Maiben hit .400 in 30 games with a .520 slugging percentage and a .457 on-base percentage on his way to a First Team All-GNAC nod, while Derek’s twin brother Jacob Maiben hit .337 with a .474 on-base percentage and .404 slugging percentage as a Second Team All-GNAC outfielder. Junior catcher Anthony Zellner provided some rare on-base ability from behind the plate, hitting .320 with a .453 on-base percentage and 16 RBI in 18 games. Zellner also finished without an error in 163 fielding chances.

Central Washington comes in third in this year’s preseason poll after finishing there last season with a 14-10 conference record and going 16-14 overall. They advanced to the GNAC Championships but lost two straight games to Northwest Nazarene.

The Wildcats boast last season’s GNAC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-GNAC catcher in Austin Ohland, who burst onto the scene with a .347 batting average, .446 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage to go with 10 doubles, five home runs and 25 RBI. Junior outfielder Zach Berryman put together an excellent offensive season in 2021, collecting 45 hits and 16 walks to hit .409 with a .522 on-base percentage and earning First Team All-GNAC honors. On the mound, CWU plans to lean on left-hander Brayde Hirai, who struck out 15 in 16 innings pitched and held opponents to a .238 batting average, and junior swingman Dylan Weese, who pitched to a 3.52 ERA in 30.2 innings pitched, striking out 25.

Montana State Billings is picked fourth in this year’s poll after tallying a 10-30 record in 2021 with a 10-22 mark in the GNAC. As an added challenge, the Yellowjackets are losing both of their First Team All-GNAC players from last season in shortstop Will Riley and designated hitter Daniel Cipriano, as well as two Second Team All-GNAC and two Honorable Mention All-GNAC players.

Talent remains, however, namely Second Team All-GNAC outfielder Carson Green. The junior did a little bit of everything in 2021, hitting .268 and slugging .457 with eight doubles, three triples, four home runs and five stolen bases. Catcher Justin Lutz brings pop, with five home runs, 22 RBI and a .500 slugging percentage to go with a .261 average. The Yellowjackets will have several players filling larger roles this season. Of the seven position players to play more than 30 games for MSUB last year, only Green and Lutz return.

Where MSUB does not lose ground from last year’s team is on the mound, with the starting rotation of Connor Redmond, Logan Siblerud, Dylan Barkley and Matthew Houlihan remaining intact for 2022. Redmond led the staff with 34.1 innings pitched and went 2-3 with a 7.86 ERA. Reinforcements could come from the transfer market, with infielder Payton Flynn coming in from Division I Washington State and pitchers Trevor Cassell and Mike Ouwehand coming from Skagit Valley CC and Walla Walla CC, respectively.

Wrapping up the poll is Saint Martin’s, who went 4-28 in GNAC play last season and 8-32 overall. Infielder Aaron Renaud is the Saints’ top returning bat after hitting .315 with eight doubles, three triples, seven home runs and a .597 slugging percentage. Second Team All-GNAC catcher Bryant Nakagawa also returns. Nakagawa hit just .212 but earned a .460 on-base percentage, and threw out 8 of 13 would-be base stealers from behind the plate.

The Saints lose their top pitcher in Tanner Inouye, but sophomore Cole Hatton returns after making nine starts and pitching 44.1 innings with a 7.31 ERA. Sophomore Finnley Butler and junior Zach Alcos seem primed for bigger roles after pitching to sub-6 ERAs while going back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

The first game of the 2022 season is February 3, when Western Oregon plays at Fresno Pacific. All five teams will be underway by Saturday, February 5. Conference play opens March 4, with Northwest Nazarene playing at Central Washington and MSUB playing at Western Oregon in the GNAC season’s first series.

Pos. Team (1st Place Votes) 2021
GNAC Record
1. Northwest Nazarene (4) 35-10 21-3 (1st) 24
2. Western Oregon 22-8 19-5 (2nd) 19
3. Central Washington (1) 16-14 14-10 (3rd) 15
4. Montana State Billings 10-30 10-22 (4th) 10
5. Saint Martin's 8-32 4-28 (5th) 7