Team effort key for Pack

Published 9:36 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Washington coach Ryan Whitney (left) goes over hitting mechanics with his players during practice at Washington High School. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

Heading into his first season with the Washington baseball team head coach Ryan Whitney faces some Babe Ruth-sized challenges as begins the preseason looking to find a new middle infield combination and a No. 1 pitcher.
Last season Pam Pack ace Hatteras Brooks and sweet-swinging, sure-handed shortstop Jake Duke helped ease the transition of newly-hired coach Matt Burnett, whose stepson Isaiah Taylor played second base. After leading the team to a 12-13 record and a trip to the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs Burnett accepted the head coaching position at Myers Park High School in the offseason and took his son with him, while Brooks and Duke graduated.
The good news for Whitney, who is Washington’s fourth head coach in four years, is there is an abundance of eager players looking to fill those roles and enough veteran players to help steady the ship until everybody gets their sea legs. Right now, the biggest challenge for Whitney is to get everybody on board before the teams March 2 season opener against Riverside.
“I think above anything we just need people who are willing to buy into what we are trying to do and buy into a role,” Whitney said. “I think if guys will do that and realize that it’s about something bigger than themselves and buy into the team, I think that will be the biggest X-factor.”
Another critical key to the Pam Pack’s success will be pitching. Last season Brooks provided a steady presence on the mound for Washington but this year the void created by his departure might have to be filled by several players until someone rises about the rest.
“We don’t have a clear cut No. 1 or 2, certainly there will be a lot of games that we will win by committee, but there are a couple of guys in the fold that I’m hoping as we go will establish themselves. Maybe not necessarily as a 1 or a 2 but as a 1-A and 1-B,” Whitney said. “Right now I’m just looking to get some quality innings from several guys as we move through.
“There are several guys (vying for pitching roles). We got Avery Woolard, Will Phelps, Patrick Thompson, Matt Dixon, Christian Lambert and Will Masten. We got plenty of guys in the mix and right now we are just trying to define some roles and I think that will happen of the next week or two.”
While the process may be challenging, what Whitney wants to see from his staff is fairly simple.
“It can be difficult but our No. 1 concern is finding guys that can throw strikes and get outs. It doesn’t matter if you throw 60 miles per hour or 90 miles per hour the best pitch in baseball is a strike. The best pitcher is the one who gets outs,” Whitney said. “We had some solid performances (during a scrimmage) on Saturday and we’re really just looking to build on that.”
Helping Whitney build this season in the field will be returning standouts Will Swain and Will Phelps. Swain, who has made the WDN All-Area team as an infielder and outfielder and hit .307 with 19 RBIs last season, while Phelps is a hulking junior first baseman that provided a steady bat in the middle of the Pack’s lineup as a sophomore.
“Based on workouts and practice and buying into what we’re trying to do I feel like Will Phelps has certainly been a guy who has been big. We want him not only to be big in stature, but big in presence … He’s a big kid and a good kid and I’ve been happy with the way he’s stepped up as a leader in the early portion of the year,” Whitney said. “Will Swain is another one. Those two have both done pretty well.”
Swain’s bat will be a key cog in Washington’s lineup but his glove may bring more value to the team this year. Last season Swain made the switch from second base to center field and handled it well. This year, with the middle infield spots open, Swain could once again see dirt under his cleats on either side of second base.
“We plan to use him at several positions. The good thing about Swain is he’s athletic. I hate to use the phrase “utility guy” because that’s sometimes associated with a guy that’s not very good at any position but that’s not the case,” Whitney said. “A kid like him, he’s an asset because he’s somebody that you can use at different places if somebody gets hurt or if you’re trying to create a specific pitching matchup. He might be that difference because he allows you to be able to do that.”
If Swain does move to shortstop or second Washington will still need another middle infielder to play by his side, and just like the pitching situation, it might take a group effort to make it work.
“We’ve got about eight guys right now that we’re trying to sort through,” Whitney said. “We found out a little on Saturday … But I think one of two things will happen: Either one or two guys perform so well that they blow away the competition or that everybody as a group takes strides and makes it difficult for us to pick.”