Jan. 23—Despite what the weather over the last couple weeks might lead one to believe, spring sports are right around the corner.
Lewis-Clark State has already competed in a couple of events in its spring sports slate. The baseball, track and field and tennis teams have all already started their season or will in the next week and golf is scheduled to have its first event on March 4.
The spring sports teams are approaching their respective seasons with high expectations. Among all of the sports are defending national champions, a national runner-up, All-Americans, all-conference athletes and a slew of competitors who have already etched their names into school record books.
LCSC had a spring sports news conference Monday featuring coaches and players from all the aforementioned sports. Here are some notes and an overview of where the teams stand going into the spring:
Track and field
The Warriors track and field program had one of the greatest years in its history in the last indoor and outdoor seasons.
Jennah Carpenter was a two-time national champion in outdoor and indoor high jump and the team had a dozen All-Americans, including Carpenter's titles, between the men and the women across both seasons.
Those accomplishments are a high bar to clear (pun intended), but LCSC's track and field athletes have started to do just that.
The Warriors are already two events down in their indoor schedule. They competed at the Spokane Invitational on Dec. 9 and the Lauren McCluskey Memorial meet in Moscow on Friday and Saturday.
In the two events, LCSC had 11 national qualifying marks (including two provisional marks) and set seven school records. Several others set personal bests and just missed out on national qualifying or school-best performances.
"It's already exciting to see the training work this early in the season," junior jumper and Orofino High School graduate Sydney Zywina said. "And getting the results we need pretty early on was pretty cool."
Zywina is one of several national qualifiers in the early season for the Warriors. She set a national qualifying mark in the triple jump at the Spokane Invitational and set a provisional national qualifying mark in the long jump at the McCluskey meet in her first try in the event.
Fellow junior Madigan Kelly, a Lewiston High School graduate and someone who has also hit national marks, pointed to the team's adjusted training regimen this past summer as a contributing factor to the team's early success.
The success has been recognized early in the season. On the same Monday as the news conference, Kelly, Zywina and another national qualifier, sophomore men's team jumper Trenton Johnson, were all named Cascade Conference track and field athletes of the week.
"I think our team dynamic — it's really good this year," Kelly said. "We all are a big team. The guys, the girls, even the (cross country) team — we're all one big family this year. We're all supporting each other on and off the track. ... We're all in a good place at the moment."
Track and field has become one of the most successful athletic programs LCSC has and with the most recent success, and the expected success to follow throughout the season, it wouldn't be a shock if the Warriors are well-represented come Nationals.
As one of two LCSC athletic programs independent of conference membership (dance being the other one), the tennis team has a lot of variance in its schedule compared to other programs.
Last year, the tennis program made the most of its independence and went to meets and duals in states such as Kentucky, Montana, Georgia, Louisiana, Washington and Montana.
The team has done a bit of traveling already this season. The Warriors went to Boise and played in duals against Idaho State and Boise State on Saturday.
Although LCSC wasn't successful against their NCAA Division I in-state foes, the travel and experience of playing against higher-classification or higher-ranked competition has helped prepare the team as it hopes to make a run at Nationals this season.
"I think that helps a lot to have started that last year," Warriors coach Kai Fong said. "Because that's going to be the trend for us the next few years coming. Our picture for (scheduling) is going to be all over the map. We're going to be in Atlanta, we're going to be in Kentucky, we're going to be in San Antonio, New Orleans. So all of that will prep (the team) to do well on the road, right away. For us to get ranked and all of that, we have to do well on the road."
LCSC will have a lot of extra opportunities for competition this season. The Warriors have 16 players apiece on the men's and women's rosters — the most during Fong's 36 years at the helm of the program. The quantity of players on the roster has allowed LCSC to schedule events on the same day, including some home-and-away days, which has afforded some players the opportunity to see the courts sooner or more often than they would if it was just one scheduled dual on match day.
The team also has a healthy balance of veteran returners and newcomers. The extra opportunities for experience for the new faces to the team and the veteran leadership should help the team develop a chemistry and speed up the process for development.
Chemistry building is nothing new for this team. By far the most diverse team in Warrior athletics, the process often starts slow in getting new players acclimated because of the variance in cultures and backgrounds. But that makes the payoff even better when players buy in.
"In the beginning of every year it's a little difficult," senior Matus Rusnak said. "Because we are really diverse. We are all over the world. And therefore, our cultures and our differences are bigger than other teams, if you look at the rosters. ... But as the season continues, or the fall semester, I should say, we're (getting along more). And I feel like we're becoming a group that can help the younger players to become the players they want to be — if they're willing to let us help."
The experience of Fong and the upperclassmen on the team should help expedite the younger players' development and how the tennis team progresses among the varying levels of competition will be something to watch.
Going into the fall half of the season, the bar was apparent for LCSC golf. Cascade Conference rivals, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, were the defending national champions on both the women's and men's sides.
The Warriors took steps to reach that benchmark in the fall. The men ended the season with a first-place finish at the Whitman Confluence Invitational and finished second twice and fourth in its other fall invites.
The women ended the season with a third-place finish at the Whitman Confluence and had other finishes of third, second and third at the remaining three invites.
Both teams also ended the season with honors: seniors Kyla Currie and Juan Pablo Quisoboni took both the men and women's Cascade Conference golfer of the week honors to end the season.
Currie and sophomore Bryden Brown mentioned during the fall that the team was tighter knit than the season before, which helped the team grow together and improve as individuals.
With momentum on their side and several more months of growth (and a new addition to the women's team in Isabella Barquet), LCSC is ready to make that final push of the season to try to unseat the Thunderbirds at the top of the Cascade Conference and the NAIA.
"I think the fall was a big learning experience, kind of for all of us," Warriors coach Zach Anderson said. "A lot of new faces. ... So, just being able to implement the newcomers and the returners, it took us a little while. But we knew that was going to happen. That's just a part of integration."
Both the men and the women had individual top-three finishes and Day 1 leads during the fall on top of their high team placements.
The potential to make that final push has been something that Anderson and the athletes have been noticing and pushing toward and, though it's been a process to get there, the payoff so far has been worth it.
"It's been really fun," freshman Chase Caruso said. "It was definitely a learning experience for the first season. I feel like I got to see how everything works and just meet everyone. And I'm definitely excited for (the spring) and to do better."
In his second season at the helm of the program, Anderson has put the teams in a good position to make that one final push this spring to get to the top of the conference.
Now it's just a matter of accomplishing it.
At this time last year, the 19-time national champion Warriors were coming off a runner-up finish against Southeastern (Fla.) in the Avista NAIA World Series and had to do a near complete overhaul of their roster due to graduations and transfers.
This season, LCSC is again coming off a second-place finish in the Avista NAIA World Series, but this time is returning all but one starter in a lineup that averaged 9.8 runs from the NAIA Opening Round through the Series.
The team has made some new additions to its offense in transfers Jake Gish (Utah), Ike George (Charleston Southern) and Magnum Hofstetter (Hawaii) among others, which will give the team depth as defending World Series MVP Isaiah Thomas works his way back to 100% from an injury he's been dealing with in the offseason. It will also help to offset some of the impact from other potential injuries, which plagued the team last season.
The Warriors will have, according to preseason NAIA Top 25 rankings, the toughest week to begin the season. They start their schedule Feb. 1 in Arizona against No. 6 Tennessee Wesleyan and will play three games total from Feb. 2-3 against No. 1 Southeastern, No. 7 Bellevue (Neb.) and St. Thomas (Fla.), which received votes.
The four games comprise three of the six nonconference top-10 opponents that LCSC has on its schedule.
"We put (the schedule) together just because of that — it's tough," Warriors coach Jake Taylor said. "I think that really helped us last year as a group with all the new guys we had. ... This year it's an even tougher schedule. So we'll be ready to go next week the best we can and we'll play the best we can at this point in the year. But it's a great opportunity for us to be on the road and be together and continue to grow as a team."
If there's one question mark for LCSC, it's its pitching staff.
The Warriors lost a good number of their pitching staff from a season ago due to graduation and, of the 15 new players they brought into the program this season, eight were pitchers.
The team does have key returners in its staff. Senior right-hander Cam Smith, who was fourth in the team in ERA, and junior lefty Dallas McGill, who was tied for the most starts on the team, both return. The veteran leadership and the addition of Alec Holmes, a four-year pitcher for LCSC, to the coaching staff has helped the new hurlers acclimate quickly to Lewiston. Among those new pitchers is senior Oklahoma Wesleyan transfer Tucker Grote, who led the summer baseball West Coast League in ERA in the summer of 2023.
"I think with Alec, I came in this program with him," Smith said. "So at the beginning (of him being a coach), it was definitely a little weird. But he's done an amazing job and I give so much thanks for everything he's done for all the new guys and things like that. I respect the guy a ton. I love what he's trying to do."
Taylor said that the team has an idea as to who will start the games in Arizona and Smith gave credit to the new guys for becoming acclimated to the new environment quickly, something that was a struggle for the team last season.
Last year the team was composed mostly of underclassmen who hadn't had experience and were learning as they went. Injuries exacerbated that issue.
This year, with a season and a deep postseason run under their belts, the returners have the chemistry that was missing from most of last season and that's helped the new faces to the program become more acclimated and bought into the mission LCSC has: hoisting its 20th red banner.
"(Last year) it was hard to get everyone moving in the same direction because it was so new to everybody," Warriors senior left fielder Nick Seamons said. "And I think now that we have so many people who know how we go about our business, it was way easier for all the new guys to just jump on board and follow along. And I think all of them came in and jumped in seamlessly and I think it's going to be pretty fun."
LCSC has been one step away two seasons in a row from bringing home the Warriors' first national championship since 2017 and the first of Taylor's tenure as coach. Last year, with an almost completely new team, they were one run away from doing it. The Warriors think the motivation is there, the talent is there and the ability is there to accomplish that goal.
The tough early schedule will be the first sign if LCSC can get over that hump.
Track and field: at Inland Northwest Invite on Saturday at Whitworth College in Spokane.
Tennis: Men and women vs. Whitman starting at noon, Feb. 3 at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.
Golf: Men and women at RMC Intercollegiate Invite from March 4-6 at Reflection Bay Golf Course in Henderson, Nev.
Baseball: vs. No. 6 Tennessee Wesleyan at noon, Feb. 1 at Gene Autry Park in Mesa, Ariz.
Kowatsch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, email@example.com or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.