Bearcats Seek Continued Success after Reaching NCAA Regional Final in 2018

Connor Bailey (Sr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) hits a homer in the NCAA Regional championship game, photo courtesy Whitworth Athletics
Connor Bailey (Sr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) hits a homer in the NCAA Regional championship game, photo courtesy Whitworth Athletics

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- Last year, the Willamette University baseball team won the 2018 Northwest Conference Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Spokane Regional championship game, before ending the season with a 31-19 overall record. The Bearcats were 15-9 (3rd place) in the NWC during the regular season. WU went 11-7 at home, 11-7 on the road and 9-5 in neutral-site games. Head Coach Aaron Swick was chosen West Region Coach of the Year by D3baseball.com.

At the four-team NWC Tournament, Willamette defeated Linfield College, 6-3, before falling to George Fox University in the winner's bracket game, 4-2. The Bearcats then defeated regular season NWC champion Pacific Lutheran University, 4-2, to earn a berth in the finals, where the Bearcats would have to get past GFU twice to win the tournament. Willamette downed the Bruins 11-6 to force a second championship game, and then defeated GFU, 4-2. The tournament title allowed Willamette to claim the NWC's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA Spokane Regional began with the Bearcats defeating top-seeded Chapman University, 10-5. Willamette pulled away from Concordia University (Texas), 13-4, before losing to Teas Lutheran University, 6-1. The Bearcats rolled past University of Texas-Dallas, 10-3, to reach the finals. Texas Lutheran won the Regional title by defeating the Bearcats, 6-5 in 10 innings, in the championship game. Texas Lutheran went on to place second at the NCAA Division III College World Series.

"The 2018 season was fantastic, but our players want to keep raising the expectations for our program," Willamette Head Coach Aaron Swick said. "The cliche in baseball is pitching and defense wins championships. We certainly believe those traits will be the strength of our team."

The pitching staff returns mostly intact, with lots of experience. The Bearcats return players responsible for all but 24 innings out of 438 1/3 innings pitched last season. Although the Bearcats graduated a handful of starters from the infield and the outfield, there are several new players and returning players who will battle for the open positions.

Willamette begins the season ranked second in the NWC Preseason Poll. George Fox is first with four first-place votes and 57 points in the poll. Willamette follows with 55 points and three first-place votes. Pacific Lutheran is third with 51 points and two first place votes. Linfield holds fourth place with 45 points, and is followed by Whitworth University in fifth place at 34, University of Puget Sound in sixth place at 30, Whitman College in seventh at 24, Pacific University in eighth at 16, and Lewis & Clark College in ninth with 12 points.

The Bearcats open the season this weekend with four games in Southern California. Willamette will play three games at Whittier College, starting with one game on Friday, Feb. 8 at 2:30 p.m. (PST), plus a doubleheader on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 11 a.m. (PST). The Bearcats will complete the trip with a game at Occidental College on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 10:30 a.m.

WU will play a total of three non-conference games next weekend against NWC opponents Puget Sound, Pacific and Linfield, before heading into conference play. Willamette's opening series in the NWC is set for Saturday, Feb. 23 and Sunday, Feb. 24 at Puget Sound. During the season, Willamette will play NWC home games at John Lewis Field against Lewis & Clark, Whitworth, Pacific and Pacific Lutheran. In addition, Whittier will travel to Salem, Oregon, to take on the Bearcats in a game on March 21. The Bearcats will battle Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in Claremont, California, in a three-game series on April 5-6.

PITCHING

Returning starters Matt Steindorf (Sr., RHP, Granite Bay, CA/Granite Bay HS), Brandon Nelson (Sr., RHP, Murrieta, CA/Vista Murrieta HS) and Nathan Gilman (Sr., RHP, Chino Hills, CA/Diamond Ranch HS) will be joined in the rotation by freshman Matt Pisacane (RHP, San Deigo, CA/San Dieguito HS) to start the seaon.

Matt Steindorf (Sr., RHP, Granite Bay, CA/Granite Bay HS) Steindorf was named Second Team All-West Region by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) last season. He achieved an 11-3 record on the mound while setting a Willamette single season record for wins. He concluded the year with a 2.87 earned run average, 67 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 109 2/3 innings pitched. He limited opponents to a .255 team batting average.

At the end of the season, Steindorf owned a 25-7 career record to rank fourth all-time at Willamette in career victories. He had accumulated 174 career strikeouts. He was named First Team All-NWC for the second consecutive year. During the postseason, he started two games in three days at the NWC Tournament and started two games in four days at the NCAA Regional.

"Matt had an outstanding year in 2018, maybe one of the best in the country," Swick said. "His ability to pitch deep into games every week has been incredible."

Nelson registered a 4.81 ERA last spring and ranked second on the team with six wins. He allowed opposing batters to hit only .273, while recording 49 strikeouts. He threw 76 2/3 innings. Nelson has a 4.21 career ERA with 131 strikeouts. Gilman went 2-1 with one save last season, while contributing a 3.40 ERA. He struck out 24 batters in 42 1/3 innings pitched. Pisacane was a four-year varsity player at San Dieguito HS).

"Brandon and Nathan give us quality experience in the rotation," Swick noted.

The Bearcats have many quality players who can contribute from the bullpen. Leading the way is Brandon Murillo (So., RHP, Rancho Cucamonga, CA/Los Osos HS), who pitched his way to a 1.88 ERA, a 2-0 record and seven saves. Joey Faudskar (Jr., OF/P, Phoenix, AZ/Pinnacle HS) added a 3.00 ERA and four saves, while Liam Keefe (Jr., LHP, Lake Arrowhead, CA/Rim of the World HS) was 3-0 with a 2.95 ERA.

"The bullpen will be strong," Swick said. "There are lots of guys who have had success. Brandon Murillo and Joey Faudskar provide us with multiple options to finish games."

Other returning pitchers who will contribute this spring are Benjamin Whitten (Jr., RHP, Danville, CA/San Ramon Valley HS), Dawson Enright (So., RHP, La Mesa, CA/James Madison HS), Jason Snare (So., LHP, Seattle, WA/Bainbridge Island HS), and Mason Cook (So., RHP, Riverton, UT/Riverton HS). Newcomers Trevor Burrows (Fr., LHP, Dayton, NV/Dayton HS) and Eric Waldichuk (Fr., RHP, San Diego, Ca/University City HS) have looked strong and will battle for playing time right away.

CATCHING

Cole Pursell (Sr., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) Willamette graduated Jack Brett (Aurora, CO/Regis Jesuit HS) behind the plate. He led the Bearcats with a .358 batting average and 14 doubles last year. He also blasted 10 home runs. He was named First Team All-NWC, was chosen First Team All-Region by D3baseball.com, and was selected Second Team All-Region by the ABCA. The Bearcats have several catchers who will battle for playing time this spring.

Cole Pursell (Sr., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) missed all but seven games last season due to injury. He batted .298 in 2017 with three doubles and two home runs. He is healthy this spring and is ready to be a key player on offense and defense. Other returning catchers are Cole Slater (Jr., C, Encino, CA/Campbell Hall HS) and Kyle Underwood (So., C, Highland, CA/Citrus Valley HS), who saw some action last season and are stronger now. Both will help Willamette staff the plate throughout the season.

"It's great having Cole Pursell healthy again," Swick said. "He has the ability to make a big impact for us."

INFIELD

Two infield starters are back at the positions they played last year ... Tyler Janitz (Sr., SS, Modesto, CA/Joseph A. Gregori HS) at shortstop and Brendan Natuzzi (Sr., 3B, Napa, CA/Justin-Siena HS) at third base.

Janitz batted .313 with 21 runs and 21 RBIs and was chosen Honorable Mention All-NWC. He led the Bearcats with 10 sacrifice bunts and was 7 for 10 on stolen bases. He hit a grand slam against Concordia (Texas) in the NCA Regoinal. Janitz led the team with 129 assists and is ranked fifth all-time at Willamette with 344 career assists.

Tyler Janitz (Sr., SS, Modesto, CA/Joseph A. Gregori HS) "It's not often you have a four-year starter at a position," Swick commented. "Tyler has been incredibly reliable as a leader on the field."

Natuzzi played in 45 games with 44 starts. He hit .280 with 11 doubles and 25 runs. He was successful on 9 of 12 stolen base attempts.

"Brendan had a great year," Swick said. "His athleticism and offensive production create a spark each game."

Justin Scanlon (Jr., INF, San Jose, CA/Leigh HS/West Valley College) and Ethan Fischel (Fr., INF, Eureka, CA/Eureka HS) are new to the team. They have impressed the coaches and will be able to help the team immediately as they battle for the starting spot at second base. Troy Conway graduated last spring after playing in 135 games for the Bearcats with 129 starts. He batted .295 last season and hit .291 for his career.

"Justin and Ethan allow us to create depth on the infield," Swick said.

The Bearcats also have an opening at first base, where Eric Del Prado graduated. Del Prado hit .298 in 2018 with 13 doubles and five homers. He led the team with 54 RBIs. He concluded his four years at Willamette with a .302 career batting average with 122 RBIs, while competing in 142 games with 127 starts.

Players seeking to start at first base this season are Sam Hudd (Sr./Jr., INF, Evergreen, CO/Evergreen HS), Nicholas Di Fiori (Fr., UT, Monrovia, CA/Bishop Amat HS), and Waldichuk.

Kyle Paguio (Sr., 3B, Stevenson Ranch, CA/West Ranch HS) has significant experience on the infield and can play multiple positions. Sean Little (So., INF, Corvallis, OR/Crescent Valley HS) and Tyler Kurata (So., INF, Seal Beach, CA/Los Alamitos HS) are both athletics and bring quality depth to the team.

OUTFIELD

Willamette graduated two starting outfielders in Perry Van Eckhardt in center field and Cameron Igarashi in right field. Last season, Van Eckhardt batted .308, scored 48 runs, and pounded out 11 doubles, two triples and six homers, while earning Honorable Mention All-NWC recognition. Igarashi started 42 games, scored 33 runs, hit eight doubles and made 102 putouts, including several spectacular diving catches.

The Bearcats return the third starter in the outfield in Connor Bailey (Sr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) and have several other returning players will will battle for starting positions.

Bailey was chosen First Team All-West Region by the ABCA and was named Third Team All-West Region by D3baseball.com after earning First Team All-NWC honors. He ranked second in NCAA Division III with 15 home runs last season, including a home run versus Texas Lutheran in the Regional championship game.

Connor Bailey (Sr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) Last season Bailey hit .339 for the Bearcats, while tying a school record with 64 hits and ranking third all-time at WU with 55 RBIs. He scored 48 runs, blasted 12 doubles and four triples, and tied for the team lead with 28 walks. He set a school record with 189 at bats and was the only Willamette player to start all 50 games.

"Connor is a legitimate power bat who can change the game with one swing," Swick commented. "He is poised for another great season."

Faudskar is the likely starter in center field, where he split time with Van Eckhardt last spring. Faudskar played in 23 games with 17 starts. He can cover plenty of ground and will be key player for the Bearcats this year.

Tyler Vandemark (So., OF, Modesto, CA/Joseph A. Gregori HS) and Michael Nelson (So., OF, Folsom, CA/Vista Del Lago HS) will compete for the starting spot in right field and will provide depth at the other outfield positions. Vandemark saw action in 16 games last spring primarily as a pinch-runner. He used his speed on the base paths to scored six runs. Nelson played in 12 games with four starts.

Freshman Jack Garver (OF, Salt Lake City, UT/Skyline HS) has showed quality skills during practice and will work to see playing time on both offense and defense. Ben Setlak (So., OF, Evergreen, CO/Evergreen HS) played in 11 games last year and provides the Bearcats with an option off the bench.