WENATCHEE — The Treasure Valley baseball team won the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges East Region regular-season championship this year, so the Chukars will play host to this weekend’s four-team East Region tournament. The regular-season East championship guarantees Treasure Valley a spot to the NWAACC Tournament, no matter how the Chukars play this weekend.
But in all reality, it appears as though any of the other three participating teams — Walla Walla, Yakima Valley or Wenatchee Valley — have an equal chance of earning the second spot to the NWAACC Tournament.
“Of the four (regions), the East is probably the tightest of the four,” said Knights coach Dustin Willis. “In my three years here, this is probably the closest, one through four, that the East has been. Really, it’s anybody’s tournament.”
Willis firmly believes that his team is capable of not only qualifying for the NWAACC Tournament, but winning the regional tournament outright. The Knights went 2-2 against Treasure Valley and Yakima Valley and 1-3 against Walla Walla this spring.
He’s clearly got good reasons to feel that way; his team, which got fully healthy about midseason, won eight out of its 10 last regular-season games to move from sixth to fourth in the East and qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2009.
“Through the course of the season, there’s been some ups and downs, but the guys are realizing their potential,” Willis said. “We feel that if we can roll out our best effort that we’re more than capable of winning this thing.”
WVC’s pitching has stabilized somewhat after suffering through some mid-season control issues. Beau Kerns, Mitch Yada and Allen Willey have been solid for most of the season, and freshman Lars Rider has pitched well since earning the fourth spot in the Knights’ rotation. Their bullpen has been better lately as well.
Kerns will start for WVC (21-19, 16-12 East) in its first regional contest Friday against Treasure Valley. The Knights were swept in Ontario, Ore., in early April, but swept the Chukars at Paul Thomas Sr. Baseball Stadium three weeks later.
“We feel that Beau is the best pitcher in the league,” Willis said. “He wants the ball, and we love giving him the ball. We know we’re going to get a great effort from him, and that he’s going to leave it all out on the mound. I always like our chances when he’s pitching.”
The Knights’ offense has functioned better in the second half of the season, especially after getting several players back from injury.
“At times we have mental lapses (on offense), but we usually hit our stride — if it didn’t come in the first game, it came in the second game,” Willis said. “We’ve seen glimpses of what we can do (at the plate). Our approach has gotten better as the season has gone on. We’ll have the right mindset this weekend.”
Two years ago, when Willis was serving as the Knights’ pitching coach, the team won seven games. They improved that number by 12 last season, and qualified for postseason play this year. Make no mistake — WVC wants to keep playing beyond this weekend for sure. But no matter what happens in Ontario, Willis is proud of the progress the program has made during the past two years.
“These guys have laid the foundation,” Willis said. “They’ve helped to turn things around. We’re in a good position going forward.”