Friday, May 10, 2013
WALLA WALLA — This quintet of baseball players is Walla Walla through and through.
They played together in youth baseball, they won a regular-season league title at Walla Walla High School, and they are chasing another title at Walla Walla Community College.
And now they are almost ready to move on — call it super, super senioritis.
Drew Christina and Jake Campeau are a 1-2, lefty-righty pitching punch, and the duo have eached signed letters of intent to play for NCAA Division II Montana State University-Billings, located in Billings, Mont.
Catcher Conner Holbrook, shortstop Kevin Toon and first baseman/designated hitter Brett Christina are undecided about their college destinations, but all three want to play at the next level.
Warrior coach Dave Meliah, who played baseball for DeSales High School and WWCC before moving on to the University of San Francisco — and eventually into the minor leagues, playing up to Triple-A ball — said all three will likely get on somewhere, and all five are outstanding examples of the Valley baseball system and, well, Walla Walla in general.
“The biggest thing for me is these guys are just unbelievable representatives of the whole community of Walla Walla,” Meliah said. “Not only through what they have done in baseball — obviously they’ve had success at every level — but through just the type of people they are.
“These guys are all excellent students,” Meliah continued. “They are great members of the community, and as far as community service goes, always the first ones to lend a hand to help out. They’re kids that Walla Walla can be proud of for doing the right things, on the field and obviously off the field too. They’ve been a lot of fun to coach and just be around. It’s more than just baseball to be sure.”
Meliah said promoting the quintet to prospective schools was easy.
“These guys make it easy because coaches always ask, ‘What type of kids are they?,’” Meliah said. “‘What are their grades like?’ Because if we’re telling them about someone, talent-wise they know there’s talent there. But it’s always, what type of kids are they, how are their grades? But with these guys it’s just like you don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Campeau and Drew Christina lead the Warriors in innings pitched and have been a dominant duo at the top of Walla Walla’s starting rotation. Both are 6-2 in their starts, while Christina has compiled a 1.75 ERA, and Campeau a 3.80 ERA. They visited Billings together in January and came away impressed with coach Rob Bishop and the Yellowjackets.
“To begin with, the first thing was that Coach Meliah really approved of their coach, Rob Bishop,” Christina said. “Me and Jake went there and he was very — he seemed like he just had everything together. He was very structured in what he told us, he knew all the information to any questions we had. The answers just came right out of him. So we could tell that there was just a good air about the place.”
Drew said playing at the community college helped prepare him for the next level.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Drew said. “I’ve taken a lot away from Coach Meliah and Coach (JC) Biagi, too... I just feel like I’ve developed a lot more as a pitcher when I go out there.
“High school was more of just throwing it and just trying to overpower, dominate, dominate,” he continued, “but I’ve learned a lot of things about efficiency, the mentality, the approach to the game, finding little things that can make you more successful on a more consistent basis. I’ve grown a lot in that respect.”
Christina is considering a major in chemistry at MSUB.
Campeau, for one, is looking forward to the challenge of adapting to a new team.
“It is going to be a little bit different not turning around and seeing Kevin (Toon), or not looking down at the plate and seeing Conner Holbrook, but it’s going to be fun,” Campeau said. “And I’m sure there’s a lot of good baseball players at MSU and it will be good to get to know them and make new memories with them.”
But as the pitchers will be rooming together — and Toon said he is considering attending MSUB as well — it won’t be an entirely new experience.
“It was just kind a natural decision,” Campeau said of the duo’s decision to room together. “We’ve been best friends since we were 14, so when we both figured out that we were going to the same college, it wasn’t really a choice or a discussion, we just knew that we were going to live together.”
Holbrook, who has caught Campeau and Drew Christina since high school, isn’t sure where he will be transferring to finish out his degree. Whitman College and an NAIA school in Kentucky are both on his list.
Holbrook said he wants to major in biology, with the goal of a career in wildlife biology.
Catching his high school buddies for an extra two years has “been great,” Holbrook said.
“Being a catcher, nothing changes from high school,” Holbrook said. “Having the opportunity to catch both those guys who are just phenomenal, and then getting to come to college and play with them some more, is just awesome.”
Holbrook, who has batted .325 over 80 at-bats this season, said his time at WWCC has been well spent.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” Holbrook said. “I mean the baseball out here is great, the program is great, it’s just really brought the baseball part of it up as far as work ethic goes. Going from high school to here was an easy transition — easy decision to make, being in the same town. Having the opportunity of going to school and being able to play baseball, you just can’t pass that up.”
Drew’s brother Brett Christina has been hampered by nagging shoulder pain since leaving high school. The pain prevents Brett from throwing as much, and at times can be a problem even for batting, but he has largely learned to manage the pain.
“When it’s really sore, it sometimes kind of hurts to swing, but that’s when I know I need to back off, kind of,” Brett said. “But it hasn’t been a big problem, again some of the days I tell (Meliah) and we back off a little bit.”
He made the transition from outfield to first base, the position on the field that usually throws the least, and also sees at-bats as the designated hitter.
“I used to play outfield before I came here, but, one, I don’t run well, so I started playing first base,” Brett said. “And, actually, it was also a good thing with my shoulder issues — I didn’t have to be making 200-foot throws every single day. I’ve been able to make the throws that I need to make over at first base.”
Brett isn’t sure where he will be attending next season either, and isn’t sure what he wants to study. If he hangs up his cleats, he said he will likely attend Gonzaga, where he was awarded academic scholarships out of high school and he has friends in attendance.
“I’m definitely going to miss playing with them, there’s no doubt,” Brett said of his longtime teammates. “But at the same time, we kind of need to go our own ways and try our own stuff and that. It’s not like we’re gonna forever not see eachother.”
Toon, a shortstop, had an easy decision to attend WWCC in the first place. His father works for the college and he knew Meliah previously.
He took a redshirt after shoulder surgery his freshman year, and could stay at the community college an extra season, but he is also considering MSUB and will be taking a recruiting trip there this offseason.
“I have a few options,” Toon said. “I’m not really sure yet of where I want to go, or if I want to come back here.”
Toon plans on majoring in criminal justice and hopes to find a career in law enforcement after college. He bats .258 and has a fielding percentage of .929.
“It’s nice,” Toon said of playing with some of his high-school teammates. “It almost feels like high school again; coming back here, playing with them and just kind of continuing what we had there out here.”
But at the same time, he, like the others, is ready to make a change.
“I’m ready to get out of here,” he said, laughing. “It’s been awhile.”
Now, after winning a Columbia Basin Big Nine regular-season championship their senior year of high school, this quintet will have a shot at another championship in the upcoming weeks.
The Warriors opened the season on a splitting streak, sitting at .500 as late as mid-April, but they have won 13-of-16 since April 13, and are tied with Yakima Valley for second place in the NWAACC East Region.
Holbrook said a split with East-leading Treasure Valley on April 10, wherein WWCC handed the Chukars their first league loss of the season, proved to be a turning point.
“The work ethic in practice, once we got to Treasure Valley, it just picked up big time,” Holbrook said. “Guys stepped up and picked it up on the field and it transferred over really well. Working hard in practice, guys showed up to the games and worked harder, just 110 percent for the whole time. It was amazing.”
That winning streak secures them a place in the East Region playoffs, and the top two seeds from there will move on to the NWAACC tournament.
But Holbrook said winning another championship as a group wasn’t a motivating factor for the Wa-Hi quintet.
“I’ve always wanted a championship, regardless of who I’m playing with,” Holbrook said. “I play for keeps, I guess. It doesn’t matter who’s on your team, you want to win. I hate losing. But yeah, absolutely, we want to win it all. League, NWAACCs — we want to win it all.”
“We’ve talked about the whole year playing your best baseball at the end of the season,” Meliah said, “and there were some games at the beginning of the year that we should have won, that we blew some big leads, and it’s just a learning process.
“We have the talent to play well, it’s just a matter of guys kind of putting it all together,” he said. “You could say we got hot, or whatever, but it was just a matter of guys kind of understanding their roles and all the pieces fitting in at the right time and playing with confidence every game.”
The Warriors split again with Treasure Valley Wednesday, and are now 18-8 in league and 26-16 overall. They could still surpass the Chukars in the league standings if Yakima sweeps Treasure Valley Saturday and WWCC handles its business against fifth-place Spokane, but as Yakima and WWCC are tied they would remain tied atop the league standings.
And although the Warriors haven’t yet finished the season, all five former Blue Devils possibly moving on to play at the next level is a victory in and of itself.
“We try and get every guy (to the next level),” Meliah said. “The whole point of coming to community college is to further your education and hopefully get a chance to further your baseball career. So our goal is to get every kid the opportunity to get better so they do move on.”
Meliah said about 85 percent of his players typically continue playing baseball at a four-year college.
“It’s not abnormal,” Meliah said of all five continuing their baseball careers, “but five guys from the same high school, and all five probably getting the chance to play at the next level, that’s probably abnormal.
“In my four years here, we’ve never had that.”