CK grads keeping baseball dreams alive

Kitsap catcher Lawson Hipps slides into home during the BlueJackets’ 7-6 loss to Tacoma on Wednesday in the team’s home opener. Kitsap fell 8-1 Thursday against Corvallis (Ore.). - Aaron Managhan/staff photo
Kitsap catcher Lawson Hipps slides into home during the BlueJackets’ 7-6 loss to Tacoma on Wednesday in the team’s home opener. Kitsap fell 8-1 Thursday against Corvallis (Ore.).
— image credit: Aaron Managhan/staff photo

They may have been wearing different colors, from bright red to crimson to BlueJackets blue, gold and white, but deep down, they all still bleed orange and black.

Four Central Kitsap grads are keeping their baseball careers — and dreams — alive not only with their respective college programs, but also within the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League.

2006 CK grads Tyler Owens and Aaron Johnson are suiting up for the Kitsap BlueJackets for their second season, while 2007 Coug alumni David Stilley and Andrew Duke have joined the WCCBL ranks for the first time, with Stilley pitching out of the pen for Kitsap rivals Corvallis (Ore.) and Duke donning the Kitsap-affiliate Tacoma Cardinals’ digs.

So far, the ’07 Cougars have the early bragging rights, with Tacoma topping Kitsap 7-6 in its home opener Wednesday before the Knights shut down the Jackets 8-1 Thursday in the league opener.

“It’s always fun to beat them,” Duke said with a smile. “It’s just good getting to see them.”

All four are making the most of life after high school, taking their games to the next level. For Johnson, his career goes on as a member of The Citadel, Charleston, S.C.’s military college. Owens is headed to New Mexico State University (Las Cruces) after spending two seasons at Green River Community College under BlueJackets head coach Matt Acker. The southpaw Stilley, who underwent Tommy John surgery to replace a torn ligament in his elbow, just finished his first season as a red shirt at Washington State University (Pullman). Duke too red-shirted for Lower Columbia College (Longview).

With Johnson and Owens back for their second tour of duty with the Jackets, both are excited to keep Kitsap on the up and up after advancing to the WCCBL playoffs last year.

“It’s good,” Johnson said of being a returner. “It’s nice seeing everybody (from the BlueJackets).”

“And you feel more confident,” Owens added, having already played a year in the league.

Last year, Owens, Kitsap’s third baseman, began the season with Tacoma before suiting up in 35 games (26 starts) for Kitsap, hitting .204 but scoring 11 runs and driving in 14. Johnson, playing in the outfield, also began last season with Tacoma before getting called up for 29 games, 12 starts. He hit .289 with 10 runs and seven RBI in 45 at-bats. They helped Kitsap go 24-18 in league play, finishing a game shy of the title series.

Duke is now fighting for one of four Jackets roster spots — Kitsap begins with 24 players before setting its roster at 28 in July — as a member of the Cards.

“Luckily they gave me a shot,” Duke said after being a late addition to Tacoma’s roster. “I’ve been dying to play for seventh months.”

Because he red-shirted, Duke said it’s great to be back on a ball field competitively. Making it even better is the fact the moment came back at home.

“You don’t even know,” he said of returning. “It feels good to be home.”

Duke was the designated hitter in Tacoma’s Wednesday win. He’s hoping he’ll make a big enough impression to join his former CK teammates on the Kitsap roster.

“This is a great opportunity,” Duke said. “We’ve got a good team, a good program. It shows what the BlueJackets’ organization is.”

While Stilley didn’t have a direct hand in Thursday’s 8-1 win against Kitsap, he said it was still nice to get the early bragging rights on his former CK teammates, especially because they were the seniors when Stilley and Duke were juniors.

“It is actually pretty cool,” Stilley said. “We always talk back to each other. It’s fun. It’s always good seeing them.”

While he’s pitching for rival Corvallis, Stilley said he enjoyed getting a win against the team he watched during his high school career in action.

“It does feel good,” he said. “When I was in high school, I’d always look at the BlueJackets and want to play for them. They’re a good team to beat. They’re definitely contenders.”

Stilley, who took the mound last week for the Knights in a Calgary, Alberta, Canada tourney, marking the first time he’s topped the hill competitively since his surgery last year, said it’s nice to be back home too after finishing his freshman year in Pullman.

“I always enjoy coming back to Kitsap,” he said. “And I don’t have to stay at a hotel. I can stay at home. Get good home-cooked meals.”

Slated to pitch in Friday’s game (results were unavailable at press time), both Johnson and Owens were excited to face the former CK ace.

“I can’t wait to face him,” Owens said with a wide grin, rubbing his hands together.

“I already told him don’t leave it up,” Johnson added.

While Kitsap lost to Corvallis Thursday, both Johnson and Owens put together solid outings, with Johnson going 1-for-4 with a double and Owens finishing 2-for-3 with a double and Kitsap’s lone run.

“If we can jump on Corvallis 2-1, that’d be a big boost for us,” Johnson said of finishing the series strong.

For the Jackets’ former Cougs, it’s been fun lining up opposite Duke and Stilley.

“It’s kind of cool seeing where guys are at now,” Johnson said. “We get to see some of our guys playing at the next level.”

“It’s cool playing against them on different teams,” Owens added. “And just seeing how they’re doing.”

But it also gives them a little edge, Johnson said. Especially Stilley, being a pitcher.

“They know our tendencies a little bit,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how they adjust.”

Kitsap drops first two

If Matt Acker is going to lose, at least it’s to one of his own.

The Kitsap BlueJackets dropped their home opener Wednesday night, falling 7-6 to the Tacoma Cardinals at Lobe Fields at the Fairgrounds. In a game filled with errors (three on the Cards and two on the Jackets), David Benham ripped a two-out RBI double to put Tacoma up for good in the bottom of the ninth.

“Do I want to lose to them? No, never,” Kitsap coach Acker said. “But at the same time, if I have to lose to somebody, the feeder team is part of our system. It’s good to see the kids and it’s good to see what we have in our system.”

Thursday’s loss didn’t provide that glimpse into the future for Kitsap however, leaving just the sting of defeat.

“In the beginning, we didn’t adjust,” Acker said. “That’s terrible. We have to adjust.”

Kitsap starter Chad Wagner (Lower Columbia) struggled with his command early, walking a couple while giving up three hits. An error on first baseman Bucky Aona (Southern Utah) didn’t help either.

But Kitsap settled down, not giving up any more runs until the top of the ninth, when Corvallis got the next four.

“In the middle we were fine,” Acker said. “We hit the ball hard. Nothing that was terrible. But when you put yourself in a hole like that, that happens.”

Now he hopes the loss to the Knights will light a fire under his team for today’s series finale, which begins at 7 p.m. at Lobe Fields at the Fairgrounds.

“I hope so,” he said. “We have to hit consistently, make our adjustments early, communicate. The basics.”

After tonight’s game, Kitsap will travel to Wenatchee and Moses Lake for a six-game road trip before returning home on June 24 against Bellingham, featuring University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker.

Voelkel signs with Braves

Despite being undrafted in last week’s MBL Draft, former Kitsap first baseman Ryan Voelkel, expected to be the main force in the middle of the BlueJackets’ lineup, signed a free agent deal with the Atlanta Braves. He hit .275 with 18 RBI and scoring 18 runs last year. He also had 11 doubles, second in the league.

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