MONMOUTH — GNAC play has started for Western Oregon University, and the Wolves and their coaches gear up for their regular season of baseball, softball, and track and field, each sport with one goal in mind: to do better than last year.
The preseason, which started Feb. 8, was a rough one for the Wolves, going five losses in a row.
“There were a lot of close games that we just didn’t pull through in,” catcher Justin Wakem said.
One of the obstacles the team faced in the beginning of the season was the changes in coaching that had to be made.
Head coach Kellen Walker took the season off this year when his young daughter got sick, which meant that the coaching staff had to be rearranged.
Trying to find a rhythm amongst the changes can be hard, but “we’re settling into a groove, I’d say,” Wakem said.
With a week of GNAC play under their belt, the Wolves can already see improvement in themselves, going six out of eight games won.
“From now on we know exactly what we need to do,” pitcher Craig Grubbe said, “and the rest the year’s gonna be based off of how we started the year, which wasn’t how we wanted it, and so it’s just gonna be winning from now on. Set the tone.”
It can be easy to let early losses define your season, but the Wolves are confident they will bounce back with energy, using each game as a way to gauge how they are doing.
“I think as the year goes on, I think we’ll get used to how they play and adjust to how we play,” infielder Nyles Nygaard said.
Now that the regular season is underway, acting head coach Mike McInerney, who has been with the Wolves since 2012, is looking toward post-season and regionals.
Last year, the Wolves won the GNAC tournament but fell short of the regional, making for a disappointing end to their season.
“We ended on such a high note, and it didn’t feel like the season should have ended how it did,” Wakem said.
For this season, the men just need to “play hard, be consistent, and we’ll be right there in the end like we always are,” McInerney said. “We kinda talked about leading into the season, what we needed to do, the little things we need to do to be regional eligible, because we’ve been really close over the last couple of years, two or three games, so just working on being really detailed with our preparation going in so we can find a way to pick up those two or three games that we need.”
Until then, the Wolves are tackling each game with fervor.
“I’m playing every game like it’s my last game and leaving everything on the field,” Nygaard said.
Last year, the Wolves started the regular season off with a slow start but ended on a high note in the post-season by winning the GNAC tournament, and going 14-14 with zero home games. This year, they come out of preseason with high hopes.
“(Preseason) went really well,” utility player Tyler Creach said. “I think we started great; I think our team chemistry is really good this year. I don’t have any doubts about my team or our abilities. We know how good we can be, and I think that’s really cool.”
The Wolves faced some pretty tough opponents over the preseason, but that didn’t seem to faze them — quite the opposite, in fact.
“(Preseason) was good, very competitive, which is what we like to do,” head coach Lonny Sargent, who has coached WOU softball for six years, said. “We try and schedule harder than normal, and play some tough competition. When you can meet some of the top teams early, you can see where you’re at.”
The team’s losses, though hard to swallow, give them an opportunity to work on areas where they’re lacking, Sargent said, and prepares them for the regular season.
As GNAC play continues, Sargent expects his team to do well.
“But we’re pretty young so it’s all how they handle things.”
If the team wants to make it to regionals, they have to keep steady under the constant pressure. Creach thinks they can get there if they just keep up the pace for the rest of the season and not let any losses get them down.
“We played some tough games last weekend against Simon Frasier, and I think from now until the end of the season, as long as we keep going up and stay consistent with our play, I think we’re gonna be pretty unstoppable.”
Track and Field
It’s always encouraging to head into the regular season with a solid preseason behind you. In Western’s case, The Wolves came out strong for their indoor season, with seven people qualifying for nationals, seven all-Americans — nine if you count the two athletes who received two all-Americans — and finishing fifth in the nation as a team.
Dustin Nading took first place in the mile, with a time of 4:13.30 and took home two all-American awards; David Ribich took third place in the 3,000 meter and also took home two all-Americans; Olivia Woods took sixth place in the 800 with 2:11.24; Suzanne Van De Grift took seventh place in the mile, with 4:50.75; Kennedy Rufener took eighth place in the 5,000, with 9:41.54.
These athletes, along with the rest of the team, head into the outdoor season feeling strong, with a positive outlook.
“(Indoor season) went very well; I PR’d by about eight, nine seconds,” Justin Crosswhite said.
The sophomore came up in third place for the Indoor season, behind Ribich and Nading, with a time of 4:08 in the mile.
“I hope to qualify for nationals in the 1,500,” Crosswhite said, which he currently runs at 3:56.
The focus head coach Mike Johnson, who has been coaching track and field all along the pacific northwest for 46 years, tries to impart onto his team is simple: “The individual development of the athlete,” Johnson said, “which, in turn, leads to a successful conference meet.”
Johnson is, naturally, looking ahead to the end of the season: the NCAA DII Championships, where he said he hopes to take seven or eight men and five or six women. “We’ve got a number of people who are capable of doing very good things,” he said.
To get there, the team will need to dig deep and focus, taking each meet as it comes.
“I think our team is gonna do really well; the culture of the team is just getting better,” sophomore Curt Knott said. He also hopes to qualify for nationals in the 800, but “that’s a ways off for me,” he said.