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Reigning West Region MVP JT Strickler is back for another season behind the plate. 

Roger Werth, The Daily News

A new head coach and 24 freshmen.

For most teams, this would be the recipe of a team in rebuilding mode. But that doesn’t apply to Lower Columbia College baseball.

First-year head coach Eric Lane took over for Eddie Smith in October after five seasons as a top assistant under Smith, and it’s been business as usual for the Red Devils who have won the NWAC Championships in two of the past three seasons.

“Our expectations are to go out and win every game, win the region and have a chance to win a title,” Lane said. “We weren’t sure about our pitching with a lot of young guys, but they’ve exceeded our expectations.”

Through 15 games (10-5, 1-1 league), LCC has outscored its opponents by an average score of 6.1-4.8.

“The guys are competing well, and the newcomers are learning how fast the college game is,” Lane said. “In this league, it’s about performing at a high level for 3-4 months, not a few weeks.”

One of the Devils’ bigger strengths is versatility.

“We can play matchups with guys who can hit left or right, have some speed, and pop in their bats,” Lane said. “We’ve been able to do some things with pinch-hitting in the late innings.”

The Devils are hitting a composite .252, 18th-best in the NWAC. They’re tied for second with nine home runs, and are 17th with 55 RBIs. Sophomore first baseman Sam Trend-Beacom from Australia leads the team with a .359 batting average, and is second in the NWAC in home runs with five, and eighth in RBIs with 16. Second-year outfielder Kyle Sandstrom is hitting .314 with four doubles, a home run and five RBIs, and freshman infielder Drew Barlow is hitting .293 with four RBIs.

“We have two experienced catchers (JT Strickler, Chase Hodkinson) who can handle the freshmen pitchers,” Lane said. “We have a hard-working shortstop (Ricky Muzzy) who is bringing the young infielders along, and Kyle Sandstrom has been great for us helping the outfielders.”

The four players mentioned by Lane were showered with on-field accolades as freshmen. Strickler was named West Region MVP, the all-NWAC catcher, placed on the NWAC All-Tournament team, and was named an ABCA Pacific Northwest Region first-teamer and an ABCA Pacific Association second-team All-American. Muzzy placed on the NWAC West Region first-team and was an all-NWAC infielder, was selected the NWAC Tournament MVP, and placed on the ABCA Pacific Northwest Region second-team. Sandstrom was named to the West Region Gold Glove team, and Hodkinson earned West Region second-team honors.

“We’ve put a lot on the plates of JT, Ricky and Kyle to be leaders along with playing at a high level,” Lane said. “We expect a lot from them, and their leadership has been huge and exceeded expectations.”

On the mound, the Red Devils are ranked eighth in team earned run average (3.52), sixth in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) with 1.34, seventh in opposing batting average (.241), fourth in walks allowed (44), and 10th in strikeouts (106),

All-Region first-team pitcher Jared Akin (0-2, 5.82 ERA), along with fellow sophomore hurlers Zac Horne (0-0, 2.02) and Travis Paynter (0-0, 2.45) have been lauded by Lane as the Devils’ lead by example guys.

A bevy of newcomers, led by Kelso’s Yancy Bird (2-0, 1.08 ERA), Olympia’s Derek Downey (3-0, 0.90), Mitch Lines of Hockinson (1-0, 0.90), Puyallup’s DeShawn Johnson (1-1, 1.03), and Ryan Kaser of Hillsboro (0-1, 2.57) have all provided stellar outings for the LCC pitching staff.

“The young arms have proven themselves and have been a surprise early on,” Lane added. “We have faith in all of our guys to go out there each day and perform to their abilities.”

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Sports Reporter

Rick is a 29-year veteran of The Daily News, and the lead Lower Columbia College athletics reporter. In addition, he tracks former area prep athletes and assists several other beats. He is a Mark Morris grad with a business management degree from LCC.

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