You know it’s been a long winter when you hear Lewiston High School baseball coach Tom Grunenfelder talk about snow in the second week of March.
Yes, the poor Bengals got snow this week in Lewiston – on back-to-back days even, enough that it interrupted one practice. With the forecast calling for warmth by the weekend, a season-opening tournament in Lewiston was definitely a go, though.
It would be the first opportunity for five of the six teams – Coeur d’Alene, Lake City, Sandpoint, Lakeland and Timberlake – to get outside this spring. They’ve all been confined to gyms.
The four 5A Inland Empire League teams will battle for one automatic state berth and an opportunity to earn a berth in a play-in game. 4A schools Sandpoint, Moscow and Lakeland will challenge for one state berth. The five 3A Intermountain League teams will divvy up two state berths.
Here’s a look at area teams as the season begins this weekend. It could be as late as the end of March or early April before most area teams get on their fields.
The Vikings (9-17 overall last year, 7-11 league) return the most experience out of the four 5A IEL teams. Nine lettermen are back including six starters.
The returning starters are senior Alex Krapas (outfielder/right-handed pitcher), senior Jackson Seaman (shortstop/rhp), senior J.J. Turbin (centerfielder/left-handed pitcher), junior Matt Cade (lhp) and junior Casey Spencer (utility infielder). The other returning lettermen are senior Jake Bryant (lhp/first baseman) and juniors Brian Klatt (rhp/of) and Tyler Woodall (catcher).
Others vying for starting positions are juniors Devon Austin (catcher/rhp) and Derek Priano (rhp/leftfielder/1b) and sophomores Colin Comack (rhp/inf), Zach Keiser (of), Matt Lambert (inf), Drew Turbin (inf) and Jake Pereira (rhp/third baseman).
CdA High graduate Nick Rook takes over as coach for Chris Stangel, who resigned after two seasons. Rook is enjoying the transition into the new position.
“I like our work ethic,” Rook said. “We’re having quality indoor practices and our intensity level is really good for having to be indoors.”
J.J. Turbin, who has signed with NCAA Division I power Oregon State, Seaman, who has signed with North Dakota State, and Austin are three talented athletes to build around. They will anchor Rook’s pitching staff, and Cade, Comack and Pereira could work into consistent pitching roles.
Although Rook wants to use Austin primarily at catcher, he will also call upon him to be his closer.
“The best thing we’ve got going for us is we’re competitive within ourselves,” Rook said. “Outside of two or three kids, it’s going to be a performance-based deal. If you’re playing well, you’re going to play. I told all of the guys they’ll get their cracks early. Whoever is playing well will play.”
Rook said league play hasn’t changed from when he played back in the 1990s.
“All roads to state lead through Lewiston,” Rook said. “Anyone who knows North Idaho baseball knows you have to go through Lewiston whether it’s league, district or state. Lewiston gets the nod over everybody for one reason – they don’t have a changeover in coaches.”
The Timberwolves (19-7, 10-5) welcome just their second head coach in school history in Darren Taylor, who has served as LC’s head girls basketball coach and head softball coach. Cory Bridges resigned after 14 seasons.
Taylor’s third head coaching gig is the one he’s always longed for, though. He played baseball at Coeur d’Alene High.
He takes over a program that has played in back-to-back state championship games but graduated all of its starters.
Just four lettermen return. They are seniors Julian Burgess (2b), Kyle Kausen (3b/2b) and Justin Kerr (lhp/of) and junior Scott Siebert (rhp/of).
While the cupboards Taylor inherited were bare with proven returners, they aren’t bare of talent. Others battling for starting positions are seniors Mitchell Sanchez (c) and Brennan Mayfield (c), sophomore Grant Curtis (rhp/1b), juniors Ben Pharis (lhp/of) and Austin Kiefer (ss), senior Anthony Mason (cf) and sophomore Jason Pattis (rhp/rightfielder).
Another player who could step up is senior Jordan Anderson (rhp/1b).
LC could have a deep pitching staff.
“Right now we have 13 who are working in the bullpen,” Taylor said. “We’ll have to sift through them and see who steps up.”
Taylor said it’s difficult to know how well the T-Wolves will fare at the plate.
“It’s so artificial,” Taylor said of not having practiced outside yet. “We’re throwing live in the cage, but it’s like playing in a tunnel. You just don’t know how realistic it is.”
Taylor likes what he has to work with.
“They’re a hungry bunch,” he said. “They’ve had to play behind that group of seniors forever. I think we’ll have a pretty good hitting team.”
Former North Idaho College coach Paul Manzardo is on Taylor’s varsity staff along with holdover pitching coach Jim Gray.
“I like our staff,” Taylor said. “Jim works well with the pitchers and I’m unbelievably impressed with Paul. He knows the game very well.”
The Trojans (10-15, 8-9) return five lettermen, all of whom started.
They are seniors Ben Dunlow (rhp/of), Brett Winn (ss/rhp), Cole Amende (c/rhp), Brandon Litalien (1b/of) and Nick Reinhardt (rhp/c).
Others vying for starting jobs are juniors Bryson Smith (2b/rhp), Cody Clark (of/rhp), Joe Benjamin (c), Jordan Johnston (of/rhp) and Kevin Muncey (of), sophomores Nick Berger (of/rhp), Jordan Pastras (of/rhp) and freshman Zack Reeder (3b/rhp).
“Our pitching staff is our strength,” PF coach Mick Zeller said.
Dunlow was a second team all-league selection last year and Amende and Reinhardt were in the starting rotation.
“All three got quite a bit of work last year,” Zeller said. “That’s our bright spot right now.”
Zeller said it’s difficult to gauge how well his team will hit.
“We’re hitting off a machine and me, and we seem to do both of those real well right now,” Zeller said.
Chris Young becomes the third coach in as many years for the Bulldogs (10-10, 6-7).
At least he has some recent history with Sandpoint. He was Sandpoint’s pitching coach when the Bulldogs captured the 4A state title in 2006 and he served as an assistant last year.
He takes over for Doug Semones, who resigned to take an assistant football job at Yale University.
The Bulldogs return eight lettermen, five of whom were starters. They are seniors Jordan Hammack (rhp/3b), Jake Semones (cf) and Cole Tonnemacher (lhp/1b) and juniors Ben Fisher (rhp/ss) and Joel Cramer (rf).
Others who are challenging for starting jobs are junior Daniel Charvoz (2b), senior Ricky Lang (2b), junior Cory Meer (c), senior Jonas Cafferty (c) and sophomore Tevin Hamilton (inf).
Fisher, Tonnemacher and Hammack will lead the pitching staff.
“This team reminds me of the team that won state,” Young said. “They might not be the greatest, phenomenal athletes, but they play well and get along well.”
Just how well Sandpoint hits won’t be known for a while.
“That portion is yet to be told,” Young said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it develops. We’ll take care of our business first and the rest will take care of itself.”
The Hawks (11-10) qualified for state last year, but lost much to graduation.
Coach Jason Bradbury didn’t return repeated phone calls to talk about his team.
The Tigers (10-11, 6-5) return nine lettermen and seven starters.
The returning starters are seniors Marshall Barnhouse (lhp/1b), Cody Perez (c) and Ty Wilkerson (rhp) and juniors Derek Tymesen (2b), John Morris (utility) and Kyle Overland (ss/rhp).
The other two lettermen are senior Tyler Beeman (of) and junior Salvadore Miranda (c/inf). Others who should contribute are junior Tyler Marines (of) and Mike Conrath (inf) and sophomore Jacob Coleman (lhp/of).
Tigers coach Bill Rider sees his team challenging league powers St. Maries and Bonners Ferry and league newcomer Orofino for state berths.
“I like our experience,” Rider said. “We aren’t going to have as many kids this year, but I have a lot of baseball players. Many of them play summer ball.”
The Tigers could be deep on the mound.
“We have at least three perhaps four starters and a number of relievers,” Rider said.