And in that area, his Lane Community College squad appears to be as strong as it has been in some time.
Bolstered by the return of his top starters and the addition of one of the league’s top throwers from a year ago, Strickland gave a cautiously optimistic preview of the Titans, who will open the 2009 season on Saturday in a nonleague game against Skagit Valley in Mount Vernon, Wash.
“We’re good and we’re fairly deep at this point going into the preseason,” said Strickland, who is in his sixth season as coach.
Joining returning sophomores Matt Bellando and Ben Schreiner in the starting rotation will be former Sheldon standout Chris Vitus, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound, hard-throwing right-hander who has been selected in the past two Major League Baseball amateur drafts.
“He gives us instant credibility as far as having a No. 1 pitcher who can beat any team in the NWAACC, and that’s something we haven’t really had since the 2005 era,” said Strickland, whose team won the 2004 NWAACC championship. “That’s really critical when it comes down to winning league and if we get a chance to play in the NWAACC Tournament.”
Vitus was a starter for South Region champion Mount Hood Community College last season — where he twice beat the Titans — before transferring to be closer to home.
He was drafted in the 49th round by the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and was picked again by the Angels in the 48th round last year. He turned down both chances to turn pro in an effort get stronger and more consistent and possibly improve is draft status this season.
Strickland said Vitus’ fastball was clocked at 94 mph more consistently during a summer in Spokane playing in the wood-bat West Coast League.
“He needs to get to a point where he’s hitting low 90s consistently and attacking hitters to save his pitch count,” Strickland said.
Bellando, a 6-4, 191-pound right-hander from Willamette High School, went 1-5 with 4.00 era in 2008 and was the No. 1 starter by the end of the season after opening the year in the bullpen. He’ll start the opener Saturday.
Schreiner, a 6-2, 200-pound righty out of McNary High School in Salem, went 5-6 last season with a 4.25 ERA in a team-high 57 innings. He has an offer to play for Corban College at the NAIA level next season.
The Titans also return seven starters in the field from last season’s 23-25 team, led by South Region all-star Kevin Shepherd, who moves from shortstop to third base this year.
Lane has also picked up two players — outfielder Andrew Schumacher and middle infielder Brendan Hindle — who tried out for the University of Oregon baseball team and were among the last cuts.
Schumacher (6-4, 200), a former Churchill standout who was The Register-Guard’s 2007 male prep athlete of the year, was a quarterback on the Eastern Washington football team in 2007. He transferred to Oregon in the fall to try out for the Ducks, was one of four to survive cuts coming out of fall camp, but then didn’t make the final roster. He switched to Lane this winter.
“He’s finally finding his feet,” Strickland said. “I think he picked the right sport after football didn’t really work out. That kid is just a great natural athlete. He has a chance to play Division I again, if not professionally. That’s how highly I think of him at this point. He’s our best defensive outfielder as far as tracking balls, hitting cutoff men, throwing runners out with good accuracy and arm strength.”
Schumacher, who was also a pitcher in high school, will get some chances as a reliever.
Strickland said he will once again not have a lineup of home run hitters but one that should be able to produce runs.
“We have an excellent mix of speed and contact hitters,” Strickland said. “With our speed, I think we’re going to be a really good doubles team. … Our hitters are going to have get runners in from second base with one out.”
As it always is, consistency will be the ultimate key to success, Strickland said, especially when games get packed together at the end of the season to make up for rainouts.
“Last year, we were doing fine coming off a good preseason and started off league OK, then we ran into a stretch where we played the top three teams — Clackamas, Mount Hood and Linn-Benton — in a span of eight days and we go 1-7 and we’re out of it,” Strickland said. “It absolutely killed us.”
Having a strong rotation should help during those stretches.
“This is just a pitcher’s league,” Strickland said.
2009 Lane Baseball Schedule
Feb. 28: at Skagit Valley, TBA.
March 1: at Treasure Valley, TBA. March 6-8: at Treasure Valley Tournament, TBA. March 13: at Concordia JV, TBA. March 14: at Lower Columbia, noon. March 15: at George Fox, noon. March 17: vs. UO club team, noon. March 20-22: at Columbia Basin Tournament, TBA. March 26: vs. Chemeketa, noon. March 28: vs. Mount Hood, 1 p.m. March 31: at SWOCC, 1 p.m.
April 4: vs. Clackamas, 1 p.m. April 7: at Linn-Benton, 1 p.m. April 11: vs. Chemeketa, 1 p.m. April 14: at Mount Hood, 1 p.m. April 18: vs. SWOCC, 1 p.m. April 21: at Clackamas, 1 p.m. April 25: vs. Linn-Benton, 1 p.m. April 28: at Chemeketa, 1 p.m.
May 2: vs. Mount Hood, 1 p.m. May 5: at SWOCC, 1 p.m. May 14: at Linn-Benton, 1 p.m.