Sports

Jackets eager to exit hive, get to work

Matt Acker didn’t get a break this year. But the Kitsap BlueJackets coach doesn’t necessarily need, or even want one from the sport he loves.

Acker, whose Green River Gators finished third at the NWAACC championships Monday, is now gearing up for West Coast Collegiate Baseball League play, as the BlueJackets’ boys of summers arrive Friday and Saturday to begin preparations for the team’s Tuesday opener against the Tacoma Cardinals, the squad’s feeder program.

And with a Jackets’ roster loaded with returners, Acker is getting excited.

“We’re definitely excited and we’re getting all the kids back. It’s just a lot of work,” he said.

In its third year, the BlueJackets have grown on and off the field, with both sides of operations becoming smoother as time has passed.

On the field, that means finding the right mix of players as quickly as possible.

“The big thing is to evaluate talent as quickly as possible,” Acker said. “And to create chemistry as quickly as possible. And even then, you can only create so much chemistry. Some of it has got to come from the kids.”

Off the diamond, general manager and co-owner Rick Smith said the team’s reputation continues to grow.

“I think we’ve been very, very successful for only being established for two years,” Smith said. “We’ve established relationships with colleges. It’s got a reputation for being a good program that adds value, adds talent and adds experience to the players that come here.”

The Jacket’s return 11 players from last year’s squad, including this year’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference MVP Jamie Nilsen of Central Washington University.

Nilsen, who hit .283 with 24 runs and 14 RBI for Kitsap last year, tore up the GNAC for a .391 average with 63 runs, 15 doubles, 17 steals, 8 homers and 42 RBI.

“Jamie absolutely dominated that league,” Acker said. “He flat owned ’em.”

Fellow Jacket position players who will be back include catcher Jake Owens and outfielders Doug Buser and Joash Brodin, whom Acker expects to match up with newcomer Lyndon Estill of Lower Columbia College. Buser hit .303 for Kitsap last year, the third highest average for a WCCBL outfielder.

“It is no exageration that we have the best outfield in the WCCBL,” Acker said.

Infielder Josh Meeker also is back. The South Kitsap graduate was a fan favorite last year and also is one of many Jackets still active at the collegiate level. Meeker’s Austin Peay squad is now in the NCAA Regional Round on the road to the College World Series. It won’t be easy however, as Meeker and Austin Peay face off with No. 1 ranked Vanderbilt in the first round. New Jackets Matt Kole and Keegan McCamment, both listed as utility players, also play for Austin Peay.

The pitching staff returns the bulk of the squad, with Matt Rossman, Joe Hagen, Sean Greer and Aaron Bronson back from last year. Kyle Nunley, who pitched for Kitsap in ’05 but not last year, also returns.

But the team’s top returner on the mound is Poulsbo native Kyle Howe, who will become the first three-year player in BlueJackets history this season. Howe was 5-2 with a 3.16 ERA last year, and is 7-6 overall in his Jackets’ career.

“It will be great to have Kyle back for his third and final year,” Smith said.

Rossman, 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA

last season for Kitsap, pitches for the University of California-Riverside, also at regionals as a No. 2 seed, where they’ll battle Nebraska.

Newcomers to the staff include Mark Fraser, Shane Kaufman, Travis McKracken, Brett Miller and Brad Woodfield. Miller plays for the University of Washington, and Woodfield is another active at the NCAA regionals with Lafayette, who drew Virginia in the first round.

Lawson Hipps will be a new catcher for Kitsap, and Joey Lind (UW), Brandon Kuykendall, Brandon Decker and Jack Greenberg also will add to Kitsap’s depth. Kuykendall saw a small amount of time with Tacoma and Kitsap last season.

The Cardinals, the squad’s Tacoma-based feeder team, is loaded with Kitsap-grown talent.

Central Kitsap grads James Lane and Bryce Wentworth team up with SK grads Jason Read and David Hammerich on the mound. Former Cougar Tyler Owens will be behind the plate and Bainbridge’s Zach Peach will help Tacoma’s infield.

CK alum Aaron Johnson and former Olympic Trojan Shea Baumgartner will be two-thirds of the outfield.

Johnson now plays for the Citadel while Baumgartner plays for Bethany, a Division III school in West Virginia. Peach plays for Lower Columbia and the others play for Acker at Green River.

The players on Tacoma compete with teams in both the WCCBL and the Northwest Collegiate League, where Olympia, a new feeder, also will play. Players on both teams can be called up to Tacoma or sent to other WCCBL clubs if Acker determines the Jackets will not be able to use them.

Some Moses Lake and Kelwona (B.C.) have already inquired about a couple Cards.

“Great, it’s great,” Acker said. “Already now, the other teams in the league have started asking me about players. I’m like, ‘Let me get the team together first.’ It’s good for the program. It really shows the feeder teams work and they’re worth while.”

With the Jackets beginning the season with eight straight games against Tacoma and Olympia, Acker said the Jackets should be able to get warmed up and pushed a little to start the year.

“It’s a chance for us to evaluate talent as quickly as possible. But they’re no pushovers,” he said of Tacoma. “I think there’s a misconception. A lot of times people think, ‘Oh, (Kitsap will) just trounce these guys.’ That’s not the case.”

For one, with most of Tacoma’s players being Green River players, they already have a deep familiarity with one another. Also, the NWAACC is a wood bat league, while most of the players on Kitsap play college ball with metal bats.

“They know each other. They’ve played with wood,” he said. “We should win those games. At the same time, (Tacoma will) put some pressure on them. Plus, there’s a couple Cardinals that I don’t know how we can’t bring them up.”

Ultimately, Acker expects the Jackets to compete with everyone.

“I think we have a very talented club,” Acker said. “But Corvalis (Ore.; where Aloha moved to) is very talented. Bend, as usual, they have some real talent on their roster. And again, we look really good on paper.”

Kitsap finished 24-18 last year, tied with Bend for fourth place. Spokane won at 28-14, Wenatchee was 27-15 and Aloha was 25-17. Acker said he expects competition to be just as close this season.

“I think it’s positive for the league,” Acker said. “I don’t think people realize how close it was last year. It’s good though. People can expect good games all the time. There’s no walkovers.”

Another change this season in the WCCBL is the introduction of the East and West Divisions. Kitsap will now play out of the West. The divisions not only give each team league games to focus on, but also double the playoff teams with a division series now to precede the championship series.

“The other big thing is how are we going to play each other with the West teams compared to the East teams,” Acker said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

Ultimately, Acker said the team should benefit from again looking at character first.

“It is so important. It’s neat that we have these kids coming back,” Acker said. “And the fact they’re such good kids. They really bought into what we’ve wanted to do. It’s not just keeping good players. It’s keeping good kids that really want to be here.”

Greer was a prime example.

“Sean Greer said, ‘I play school ball to play for the Jackets,’” Acker said. “I said, ‘Usually that’s the other way around.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ And it’s the community. For Sean, it’s feeling wanted. He said, ‘I really feel good there.’ A lot of the kids feel that way.”

Smith said the team has been more active in the community as well, with the Jackets set to host eight youth camps since January, and in distributing tickets to area youth teams.

“We tried really hard to start early in an effort to give away 600 tickets to Kitsap and Mason County youth baseball and softball teams,” Smith said. “They’ve been very excited about getting them. But it’s a big job.”

More than 50-plus such clubs run in the Silverdale area alone.

The league adopted new bats this year as well, another behind-the-scenes change that should benefit the BlueJackets. The league had been using Baum Bats but switched to Texas’ D-Bats.

“I’m excited,” Smith said. “The coaches and players all commented the bats have more pop, they last longer and they retain their pop throughout the season. And if anyone needs more pop in their bats, it’s us at BlueJackets Field.”

The team’s main sponsor core is back, with BodyLink providing trainers again, the Bremerton Tennis & Athletic Club letting Kitsap use its gym facilities, and the Outback Steakhouse hosting the players’ arrival banquet Saturday. For a full list of sponsors, visit the BlueJackets online at www.kitsapbluejackets.com.

“And all of our sponsors help,” Smith said. “Many have stepped up. All of that makes its a good as we can for the players.”

Kitsap kicks off the 2007 season 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Kitsap Fairgrounds Ballfields against Tacoma, with opening night sponsored by KPS Health Plans. For more information on the Kitsap BlueJackets or for tickets, visit www.kitsapbluejackets.com.

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