While some of the top local prep pitchers have since graduated — W.F. West Tanner Vaughn, Adna’s Levi Gates and Toledo’s Ryan Bloomstrom, to name a few — there is still a ton of talent dotting the area.
The Chronicle will highlight six pitchers who will have the biggest impact on their squads as they make a postseason push with the state tournament returning for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tony Groninger, senior, Rochester
The 6-foot Groninger stepped up last season as a junior and became the Warriors’ top pitcher after then-senior Nolan Eyles went out with a season-ending injury.
Though the Warriors finished 6-9 overall after advancing to the 2A Evergreen Conference tournament, Groninger shined both on the mound and at the plate.
He tossed a team-high 34.1 innings with 30 strikeouts and 42 putouts on the mound. At the plate, he batted .304 with a .431 OBP, 14 hits, nine RBI, three doubles and a team-high 12 runs.
Now, Groninger hopes the Warriors — with seven seniors, four of which are new to varsity — can get over the hump and hang with the EvCo powerhouses, such as W.F. West and Tumwater.
“The new seniors will play an important role for our team this year, filling in spots when guys are pitching, and I think they will do a good job doing that,” Groninger said.
And Groninger should have plenty of help on the mound this year, with Braden Hartley, Landon Hawes, Hyde Parrish and Kyle Wilson all expected to log some innings.
“We have a lot of depth in our pitching that we didn’t have last year,” Groninger said. “If we all come together, I believe we can make it (to state).”
Garrett Keeton, junior, Pe Ell-Willapa Valley
Keeton returns after a stellar sophomore season with the Titans, where he was one of the top pitchers in the 2B Pacific League — going 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA, 28 Ks and 10 ER in 31.1 innings.
A Chronicle all-area selection last season, Keeton might have been even more impressive at the plate, batting .436 with 17 hits, 18 RBI, 14 runs and one homer with a .511 OBP and a .718 SLG%.
Now he’ll be tasked with helping lead a Titans team that loses just one senior from last year and brings in a few newcomers, including senior Tyler Adkins, the Titans’ quarterback who is turning out for baseball for the first time since fifth grade.
“We gained a couple new bodies who haven’t played in a few years who should make us a better team overall,” Keeton said. “But we have most of our players back and most of them got experience last season.”
Also back is senior shortstop Hudson Barnum, who had a big year at the plate as a junior, hitting .417 with 15 hits, 11 RBI and 19 runs.
Barnum will also return to the mound to provide a dangerous pitching tandem with Keeton after a nagging throwing injury kept him from throwing last year.
Hunter Lutman, junior, W.F. West
Lutman gets his shot with W.F. West as the Bearcats graduated a large group of seniors from last year’s team — and he could be the catalyst for the defending district champions.
The 6-foot-5 righty already hits the 90s with his fastball and has been working extensively with former MLB veteran Lyle Overbay, a Centralia alum who played 14 seasons in the majors.
Lutman said Overbay’s guidance has helped elevate his pitching to a whole new level.
“He really believed in me and gave me the opportunity to get better,” Lutman said. “He took me under his wing and trained me, and that’s what’s really led to my success — and a lot of other people have helped me along the way.”
Lutman may now lead the Bearcats’ pitching staff in his first full year on varsity. He already got his first test in the Bearcats’ season-opener at defending 2A state champion Selah on March 12.
The Bearcats split the twinbill with the Vikings, with Lutman earning the win in the second game, striking out five batters and allowing one earned run on three hits in three innings. It was a promising first-showing against a state powerhouse.
“I feel really good about this season,” Lutman said. “After (playing Selah), we have a lot of potential with a lot of new people in new spots. A lot of potential and a super-high ceiling. So super excited about the season.”
Tristan Percival, sophomore, Adna
Percival earned all-area honors after an impressive freshman campaign with the Pirates last year.
He went 4-1 with a 0.91 ERA and fanned 35 batters in 33 innings. When not pitching, he roamed the outfield and batted .409 with 18 hits, 13 walks and a .603 OBP.
With star pitcher Levi Gates now graduated and playing in college, Percival will be asked to step up and take over as the Pirates’ ace.
“It sucks not having Levi here anymore but it’s gonna be fun being the guy that has to do it against these teams now,” Percival said.
Percival is one of seven returners who saw starting time last season for a Pirates’ squad that went 10-3 overall. Senior Ryan Wickert team up with Percival on the mound as the two will look to lead Adna back to the state tournament.
“We have a decent amount of arms, so I think that will be one of our strengths,” Percival said.
Gavin Parker, senior, Napavine
Parker returns as the Tigers’ top pitcher after the graduation of Laythan Demarest, and is already off to a promising start.
The senior righty struck out seven batters in four innings with a 1.00 WHIP in the Tigers’ home season opener against Ilwaco on March 12, helping Napavine start the season with a twinbill sweep.
Though he’s one of the top pitchers in the Central 2B League, Parker also makes his mark in the lineup. He’s coming off a junior campaign that saw him hitting .439 with 18 hits, 19 RBI, 19 runs, nine steals, one homer and six doubles.
Now he’ll lead a young Tigers’ team that returns just three seniors and is chock-full of underclassmen and newcomers.
“Our team is pretty young, so I’m hoping a lot of these kids step up and keep the standard going for us,” Parker said.
Parker will have some help on the mound, with Scott Burdick, Conner Holmes and Ashton Demarest all likely to log substantial innings. Demarest got his first start in the Tigers’ second game of the doubleheader with Ilwaco, striking out five batters in three innings to pick up the win.
Parker said the strength of this team will be their aggressiveness — at the plate and on the basepaths — something head coach Brian Demarest makes one of his focal points, Parker said.
“Putting pressure on other teams, especially on offense,” Parker said. “We have a bunch of kids who are decent at hitting, so I think, offensively, we just need to put pressure on (opposing teams).”
Mekhi Morlin, senior, Winlock
One could make the argument that no baseball player was more important to their team in the Central 2B League last season than Mekhi Morlin was to Winlock.
Without Morlin, nicknamed “Big Tokyo,” the Cardinals easily could have gone winless last season, former coach Jordan Nailon said.
A five-year varsity letterman, Morlin went 3-4 on the mound, accounting for three of the Cardinals’ four wins on the year, while striking out 29 batters in 31.2 innings of work.
He was also the Cardinals top hitter, batting .355 with a .400 OBP, 11 hits, nine runs, nine walks, two doubles and two triples. He was the only Cardinal to hit over .300.
Now, as the lone senior, Morlin will be leading a young Winlock team that’s full of underclassmen — including a bevy of eighth graders and freshmen.
Morlin, an all-area pick last year, is moving over from first base to shortstop when he’s not on the mound.
“We have people who are strong in their positions right now and look pretty good,” Morlin said.