In 2019, Columbia High baseball came within one win of earning its first State Final Four appearance since 2002.
The Bruins’ season ended with a loss to University Prep in the State 1A quarterfinals. University Prep went on to win the State championship.
Add to that the losses Columbia suffered from graduation — and they were significant, too — and the Bruins enter 2020 with a lot of open positions and a question mark about their ability to better last season’s 19-6 record. (CHS went 15-4 in the regular season. It lost three games by one run and a fourth by two runs.)
Bruins Coach John Hallead, now in his eighth year, is an optimist who has proven he can develop talent to succeed at the varsity level. The Bruins have gotten better year after year under Hallead. Three of his most-prized players (William Gross, Adam Goodwillie, and Trenton Howard) have gone onto play collegiate baseball and a fourth (senior Davis Koester) has signed a letter of intent to play collegiately in 2021.
Hallead is pleased with the progression of the CHS baseball program, which earned a Trico League co-championship in 2018, then won the title outright in 2019. Still, he said he has some valid concerns with this year’s prospects.
“First off, if you look at the success over the past three years, we have gotten better each year,” he said. “It is becoming more and more difficult to ‘better’ what we did the previous year. It is possible this year’s returners and additions. For us to ‘better’ what we did last year will mean a third consecutive league championship and advancing to the State Final Four semifinals.”
Hallead must replace three First Team All-Trico players, one Second Team player, and a two-year starter, but he welcomed back five key players from 2019 when CHS opened training camp on March 2.
The top returning player is Koester, who posted a team-best 9-2 record in 2019 with 56 strikeouts in 65 innings and good ratios (1.40 earned-run average and .182 batting average against) on his way to winning Trico Co-MVP honors. Koester also carried an effective stick. He batted .418 with a .511 on-base percentage and tallied 23 runs and 21 runs batted in.
“I’m excited to see what Davis is going to do this year on the diamond,” Hallead said. “He is another one of those rare four-year starters for us and each year in our program he has gotten better. If he continues that trend, he will be a very special college player.”
Last summer, Koester led the Columbia Gorge River Bandits summer team to a 27-9-1 record. He struck out 48 in 47 innings and finished with a 0.89 ERA and 0.803 WHIP (walks and hits divided by innings pitched). When the right-hander is not pitching, he will spend time catching and at shortstop.
Koester’s battery mate will be junior Austin Charters, who hit .338 last year and was named to the All-Trico Second Team. Charters, who also will see time in the outfield to give him a break from catching, will bat lead-off.
“Austin is the fastest kid in our school from an on-field perspective,” Hallead said. “We are going to count on him heavily to get on base and score runs.”
Also back is senior second baseman Payden Webster, now in his third varsity season. The 2019 All-Trico First Teamer was an effective offensive performer as a junior. He hit .286 with 23 runs and 13 stolen bases.
“This is Payden’s time to step up and take on more of an active role in our lineup,” Hallead said. “He is a situational hitter, which fits our philosophy, and will be counted on to get on base and score runs.”
Senior Kolby Riggleman and junior Garrett Hogberg are expected to reprise their 2019 roles, and then some. Riggleman and Hogberg, both right-handers, will be joining Koester in the CHS rotation again. When not on the mound, Hogberg will play first base and Riggleman will fill in at shortstop when Koester is on the mound.
Hogberg, an All-Trico Second Teamer last season, tossed 30.2 innings and ended the season with a 2.28 ERA before a broken wrist in a Southwest District semifinal game sidelined him for the rest of the post-season. Riggleman worked 23 innings and posted a 3.35 ERA. The two combined for 78 innings pitched last summer. They will split league starts with Koester and serve as spot relievers in pitch count situations.
“Kolby’s success this year will depend heavily on his ability to pound the strike zone and get ahead in counts. As a senior, this is his year to break out of the underclassman mentality and have more responsibilities put on him.”
Hogberg, said Hallead, “is a consistent strike-thrower who won’t overpower hitters but will leave many baffled with an array of pitches and excellent command.”
A fourth option will be junior Tyler Collins, who pitched for the junior varsity in 2019 and the River Bandits’ younger and older summer teams. “Tyler has ice in his veins. We tested him last summer with some appearances with the older Bandits team to see how he handled tough situations and he exceeded my expectation,” Hallead said. “I am looking for some big things from Tyler this spring.”
Ditto Hogberg and Riggleman with the bats. Hogberg, who hit .280 in 2019, “is capable of developing into a gap hitter for us, driving in runs and keeping innings alive,” Hallead said.
As for Riggleman, Hallead said he needs to develop a “lead-off hitter approach” at the plate, cutting down strikeouts and getting deeper into counts.
“If Kolby gets on base, we will cut him loose and let him work. I have that much confidence in his ability to steal bases, advance bases, and score runs,” Hallead said.
Competing for playing time on the infield will be juniors Tristan Williams and Cody Campbell, and sophomore Nate Roth. The outfield looks sets with senior Jack Kelly manning center field when Charters is catching and left field when he’s not; junior Garrett Clark in left field (see Kelly), and junior Kegan Brasuell in right. Also competing for playing time in the outfield will be juniors Gabe Kelly and Mason Cooper.
Hallead said Williams “has probably the most power in his swing in our lineup and, having only jayvee experience up to this point, this will be a crucial year for him to be our main RBI guy.”
Campbell and Roth will provide athleticism and speed on defense and offense. Campbell is slated to fill in at second base, Roth at third. “Nate has shown glimpses of being a very special baseball player. Consistency in the field and at the plate will be the deciding factor in whether or not Nate will be an everyday player or a role player.”
Right-handed hitters Jack Kelly, Clark, and Brasuell all played summer ball for the River Bandits. Kelly, who split time in right field for the Bruins in 2019, is the most experienced of the trio. Brasuell also saw a lot of playing time on the varsity last year as a designated hitter and at first base after Hogberg went down with an injury. Brasuell is likely to share DH duties with Williams in 2020.
“This group is the unknown. They have all shown signs of potential but none of them have considerable varsity experience,” Hallead said. “In order for us to be as successful as we should be, thig group wil have to produce not only defensively, but also in the batting lineup.”
Above all, Hallead said he is seeking consistency from the outfielders this season, regardless of whose names get penciled onto the lineup cards.
“Kegan and Tristan both have incredible power in their swings, and Jack and Garrett always seem to find ways to get on base,” he noted. “Add Mason and Gabe’s speed into the mix and we can piece together a group of guys in our batting lineup that can produce runs.”
The key to CHS’s success in 2020 will depend on whether players commit to the roles Hallead gives them. He said some will be asked to get on base and others might be asked to sacrifice at-bats to move runners around the bases. And some will be asked to score runs and knock runners home.
“We have had that commitment over the past three seasons and the successes have been a direct correlation to that,” Hallead said. “With a number of inexperienced varsity players this year, a strong pitching staff, and a better-than-average defense, the question for us will be, ‘Can we score enough runs to win?’”
If everything comes together the way Hallead thinks it can, “there is no doubt we will continue our trend of competing for a league championship again.”
Columbia will get competition for the league’s No. 1 district seed from La Center, which returns all nine starters, and King’s Way, which came on at the end of 2019. Castle Rock and Stevenson both have new coaches this year and Seton Prep is fielding a baseball team for the first time since the private school’s inception.