Rangers ready to roll in Reece era

Spring training baseball in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges circuit doesn’t exactly conform to the cactus-and-halter-top utopia of the popular imagination. Sure, the sun held dominion in the mostly-blue sky above Legion Field on Wednesday, but the wind-blown climate was more suitable to stocking caps and hooded sweatshirts than to Wilson gloves and Louisville Slugger bats.

The Olympic College Rangers nonetheless shouldered through their afternoon workout without serious complaint. Under first-year coach Mike Reese, the Rangers already have six games beneath them, going 4-2 and earning second place in the Snohomish Colleges Classic tourney a week ago.

Their play at Edmonds and Everett was just the kind of scratch-and-claw, win-by-dint-of-perseverance effort that Reese designed as a blueprint for success when he replaced Corky Franklin after last year’s 21-17 campaign.

Asked what he learned about his team after opening weekend, sophomore catcher and team captain Spencer Stark said, “We’ve got a lot of gutsy guys. We went there without a full squad and a full pitching staff and we played harder than anyone else there.”

The Rangers wear their motto on the back of their black practice T-shirts. In white letters with red border reads the acronym A.E.S., which translates into “attitude plus effort equals success.”

That might strike the cynic as somewhat trite, but veterans say the atmosphere surrounding the team has been infused with a positive vibe since Reese and assistants Ryan Rongcal, Jason Bunge, Brian Roadruck and Glenn Kellow came to town. OC will employ that power of positive thinking in an effort to crack the upper echelon of the NWAACC’s Northern Division.

“The coaches can say all they want, but it’s not going to happen until I totally trust everyone out there at every position and they trust me back,” Stark said. “I trust everyone on this team.”

So far, so good. Facing elimination last Saturday, OC scrapped back from a 5-0 deficit to beat Lane Community College of Eugene, Ore., 7-6. They won in unlikely fashion when Scott Stockman scored all the way from second base on Eric Peterson’s suicide squeeze bunt that also plated Austin Hendershot from third with the tying run.

Reese hopes Jeff Berend, a rangy right-hander from Klahowya, will be the ace of the pitching staff.

Berend battled through 11 2/3 innings at Edmonds and emerged with a 2-0 record. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore transferred from Big Bend Community College, where South Kitsap-grad Reese played NWAACC ball before moving to Central Washington.

Derek Winderl, a freshman right-hander from Bremerton, threw five tough innings against perennial Northern Division power Edmonds on Saturday, departing with a no-decision in a game the Rangers ultimately lost, 4-2. Stockman, a sophomore from Clover Park and one of the captains, will also see time on the mound. The same goes for Austin Hendershot, who hurled eight innings of 3-hit ball in a 10-1 win over Everett. The freshman from Olympic High also gave the Rangers a potent bat, hitting .450 with five RBI and three doubles. Two sophomore lefties from the Central Kitsap area, Jon Clapper (Olympic HS) and Eric Dickinson (Central Kitsap) will contribute innings. Jon D’Amore, a sophomore from Port Angeles, will add depth when he becomes eligible April 1.

“Our pitchers aren’t going to go out and strike every single person,” Stark said. “Our pitchers are successful if they throw strikes and let the defense make the outs behind them. We don’t have dominating pitching and we’re not going to hit a home run every time we get up. Our starting pitchers are going to keep us in every single game and we’re going to manufacture runs. I don’t think we have one single strength, we have team strength.”

Reese expects OC to be swift and strong in the outfield, especially come April, when sophomores Colin King and Zach Taylor become eligible. Mike Dressler, a freshman from Bainbridge, where Reese coached before taking the OC job, is starting in center for now, but could move to right when King returns. The trio should give the Rangers an abundance of speed. Dressler led the OC bats last weekend, hitting .600 with four extra-base hits, including a mammoth home run, and scoring 10 runs. King is a switch-hitting sophomore from Lake Washington.

Stockman anchors the infield at short, and Reese hopes to use him as little as possible on the mound to keep his presence in the middle of the diamond.

“With his footwork and his glovework, he’ll definitely go to the next level,” Reese said. “If he relaxes and makes the routine plays, we’ll be successful.”

Also in the infield mix are Kyle Anderson (1B/3B), a freshman from Olympic who hit .444 with a home run and 7 RBI at Edmonds, Matt Gill, Scott Cowger and Peterson. Gill, a freshman from Chehalis, is battling arm woes but should find a place in the batting order.

“He’s a left-handed hitter (who) uses all fields and hits for power,” Reese said. “We’ll try to rest him with DH stints but we’ll do everything we can to keep his bat in the lineup.”

Like Stark, Stockman says it’s a brand-new game at Legion this year. Reese demands discipline, but it’s discipline his players can find reason in. The penalty for breaking training is no longer endless running, it’s simply not playing. And that hurts, Stockman said.

“We don’t have any guys who are going to hit 15 home runs or 10 home runs in a season,” Stockman said. “We have nine guys who are going to go out there and bust their (buts). Pitching and defense win games. We don’t have a lot of depth, but we have enought talent. We took third last year and we weren’t a team, we were just a bunch of guys going out to play baseball.”

Reese steps through the revolving door that has been the OC baseball coach’s office. He is the Rangers’ fifth head coach in seven years. He said he plans to stay “as long as it takes me to develop my college system and create a winning tradition here at the college. ... When we’re winning consistently every year and competing for the Northern Division championship, until we get there I want to stay here and build that tradition. Our main motto is ‘rise to dominance.’”

The NWAACC will debut a new divisional playoff format this year. The first-place team in each division still gets the automatic bid to the championship tournament, and the Nos. 2-3-4 teams will play off for the second spot.

Overshadowing the new playoff format is the new optimism that prevails at OC. Not that it’s all fun and games. Every Tuesday at the close of practice the players leave Legion Field on a “bridge run,” jogging downhill past Harrison Hospital, taking Old Wheaton Way to the Manette Bridge, crossing Port Washington Narrows and returning via the Warren Avenue Bridge.

They say a little conditioning and discipline is a small price to pay for their new-found chemistry.

“Right the minute that Corky was gone, I knew that this was going to be a more relaxed team,” Stark said. “The players on our team like playing for Reese, and I don’t think there’s a guy that doesn’t think that.

“Baseball-wise, it’s not that different. It’s a mental thing. You don’t feel that if you screw up on one play, you’re done for the whole season.”

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