Washington State Head Coach Donnie Marbut has been to Omaha before. “I haven’t been in 11 years since my brother in law played for the SJSU team in 2000, and I told myself I wouldn’t go as a spectator again, but I hope to get there again soon.” That’s not just talk from Coach Marbut. After two straight regional appearances, returning senior leadership, and a few key incoming recruits, Washington State has the parts that could again be in competition for the top spot in one of the nation’s elite conferences.
When the then 30-year old head coach took over the program after being an assistant for the 2004 season, the atmosphere was completely different on the Palouse. The Cougars went an abysmal 1-23 in Pac-10 play in Marbut’s first season at the helm in 2005, something that Marbut wasn’t going to stand for. Over four seasons from 2000-2003 at Edmonds Community College, his teams teams won 80% of the time, going 152-38, with Marbut being named the NWAACC coach of the year in his final two seasons.
Marbut’s winning tendency soon took hold at Washington State. Fast forward to 2009, the Cougars took 2nd place in the Pac-10 and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 1990, and followed that up with a 3rd place finish in 2010.
“I think we can build on the experience of going to regionals. I think the club was just ‘happy to be there’ two years ago,” said Marbut. “Last year, we played really, really hard and lost to Arkansas in a great environment, and I think that has given the team more motivation to take the next step.
“If you can grind it out in our conference, that gives you the confidence that you can play with anybody.”
Marbut talks a lot of about confidence, and one player he equates this with is Derek Jones. Jones hit 12 HR in his first two seasons in Pullman, but hasn’t of yet made that next step to be a vocal leader. But that has definitely changed over the offseason, Marbut says, “He’s quiet and softspoken, but he’s come out of his comfort zone and that shows maturity as a player. We go as he goes, and we need him.” Jones put the work in last offseason and it paid off in the batter’s box. He cut his strikeouts almost in half from 60 to 32, while improving his batting average from .223 to .309.
While Jones will be manning right field, the Cougs aren’t short on talent and potential in the rest of the outfield. Junior Kyle Johnson returns after an season begun with a scary collision at Texas A&M, but ended with a .242 batting percentage in 40 contests. Marbut thinks that with if he can focus on fine tuning his game, Johnson can become one of the best outfielders in the Pac-10. Patrick Claussen has played mainly a utility role over his two years with the Cougars, and he could be called upon to play some outfield as well as DH.
The player that Marbut is highest on is freshman CF Jason Monda. As the coach describes him, “He looks a lot like Shawn Green and has the chance to be the Real McCoy. His work ethic since he has been on campus are matching his tools on the field, and he is already one of the most talented players I’ve ever coached.”
As far as the infield goes, senior Matt Argyropoulos will be relied on to be their everyday third baseman. As Marbut puts it,“Second and Third place finishes in the conference the last two seasons have come through senior leadership from the Matt Finelli’s and Weber’s of the world. And that’s where Matt steps in. I think he’ll hit in the middle of the lineup and he’s got all the tools to be one of the quality third basemen in the Pac-10. ”
Up the middle, Cody Bartlett is going to replace Shea Vucinich at Shortstop. Cody hit .323 with 7 HR at Second Base last season, and makes some of the best defensive plays you’ll see on the diamond. After shifting over to replace Vucinich late in a game against Oregon last season, Bartlett made a full speed diving catch down the left field line that was arguably one of the Top 10 plays of the year. He also hit a homer at the Fayetteville Regional against Kansas State. The excitement doesn’t stop with Bartlett, as West Coast Collegiate League MVP Tommy Richards will take over for Bartlett at Second Base. Richards summer with the Bend Elks included batting .364 with 2 HR, 10 doubles and 33 RBI in 41 games. The Cougars also have a third middle infielder in freshman Trace Tam Sing, who Marbut says is “our most talented middle infielder we’ve ever had and he’s only a Freshman.” The defensive prowess of the middle infield could come in handy with the new BBCOR bat standards coming into place.
Rounding out the infield are two highly touted first basemen. Taylor Ard is a transfer from Mt. Hood Community College who is finally making his Division I debut. Ard was slated to attend Oregon State after hitting a Mt. Hood record .490 his Freshman year, but suffered a wrist injury that derailed that plan. After spending another year at Mt. Hood and then playing last summer in the Cape Cod League with Derek Jones and the Brewster Whitecaps, Ard is ready to step in and take over the starting 1B role. Nipping at his heels is RS Freshman Adam Nelubowich, who was drafted in the 14th round of the 2009 draft by the Seattle Mariners, but didn’t play last year for the Cougars rehabilitating from a labrum tear. Nelubowich will undoubtedly get some playing time either at 1B or the DH spot, and could come in handy in late game situations as Marbut says he is “a little better runner and can hit left handed.” Jay Ponciano returns behind the plate and will hit near the bottom of the lineup. He’s a good defensive catcher who has the experience to manage the Cougars pitching staff.
Chad Arnold is back to lead the Cougars pitching staff after not reaching an agreement with the Dodgers after his 18th round draft selection, but he may not see time until Pac-10 play. Arnold has a chip on his elbow that will delay his 2011 debut. The RS senior was the workhorse of the Cougars staff last season, throwing 3 complete games and 108 innings in 16 starts, going 5-3 with a 3.74 ERA. Junior Adam Conley racked up 12 saves last season but will be moved into the starting rotation and pitch on Saturdays when Arnold comes back. Conley went 5-4 last season in only 5 starts but appeared in 29 games. Rounding out their weekend rotation is going to be James Wise, who Marbut was impressed with late in the season and ended up going 4-1, and he parlayed those late season starts into a 5-2 record with the Bellingham Bells of the West Coast League with a 3.54 ERA in 8 starts.
As far as midweek starters go, Sophomore Brett DeRooy could be thrown into that role. He was thrown into 3 starts last season as a Freshman with minimal success, but went up to Calgary during the offseason and got a lot of innings in, and has improved to the point where he threw complete game 1-hitter in Game 4 of Washington State’s Fall Series. Lefty Spencer Jackson went 3-1 in 7 starts, and should also compete for some midweek starts. Paris Shewey somehow found a way last season to go 7-3 while only starting two games. “You could see him pitch 7 innings in a weekend over multiple games, he’s that valuable to us. He could end up closing, but you don’t see that a lot out of a 4-pitch guy,” Marbut said.
In the middle of the decade, the Cougars were an afterthought on the Pac-10 schedule. A three seed and then a two seed in the NCAA Tourney the last two seasons has Marbut is talking regional hosting at Bailey-Brayton Field. With Bill Moos, now the Athletic Director at Washington State, bringing his resume of vast facility improvements at Oregon, a regional hosted in Pullman isn’t completely out of the question in the near future. Marbut’s not overlooking the Pac-10 though. “I can see a team being in first place, and I can see that same team being in eighth place. Our conference is that competitive.”