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Tuesday Morning Mound Visit: How Lewis-Clark State baseball stacks up with rest of Cascade Conference

Feb. 13—As the Lewis-Clark State baseball team was getting rained out of its scheduled contests in California of all places this past week, other Cascade Conference programs were getting their feet wet (pun intended) with their own slate of games.

Every single baseball team in the Cascade Conference has begun its season and a couple are already 10 games deep.

Last season, the conference foes performed better than the norm against the Warriors. The British Columbia Thunderbirds and Oregon Tech Owls played in the championship game of the Cascade Conference tournament and the Thunderbirds won the conference crown, although they ended up falling in the NAIA Opening Round, presented by Avista.

LCSC got the last laugh and made it all the way to the championship game of the Avista NAIA World Series.

The Warriors last season had their hardest outing against Cascade Conference foes. The question is how much of that was due to LCSC's youth and inexperience and how much of it can be attributed to the competition in the Cascade Conference genuinely improving?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

It's true that the aforementioned lack of experience (and injuries) played a significant role in LCSC's struggles, but several teams have been showing signs of improvement and can show to be legitimate competition for the Warriors.

The first of those teams is British Columbia. The Thunderbirds have been LCSC's biggest competition since the latter joined the Cascade Conference in 2020 — UBC has a .420 winning percentage against the Warriors in 50 total games played. The next highest winning percentage is Bushnell's .143 in just seven games played.

The team from the Great North has been the biggest thorn in LCSC's side and that's not stopping anytime soon.

The Thunderbirds, who have received votes in both the coaches' and NAIA Ball's polls, have already earned four quality wins this season in six games played: two against No. 11 Hope International (Calif.) and two against NCAA Division II team Central Washington.

Throughout those six games, British Columbia's pitching staff has held batters to an average of .247 and have struck out 67-of-219 batters faced.

The Thunderbirds' top reliever, Ryan Heppner, has a 0.00 ERA and 0.30 WHIP against 20 batters faced in 6 2/3 innings. One of British Columbia's top hitters, Trent Lenihan, was named Cascade Conference player of the week on Monday.

The Thunderbirds are no slouches.

Aside from the Warriors, they might be the most-balanced team in the conference, and it wouldn't be a shock if they took the next step and reached the World Series — a feat they were just a pair of wins away from last season.

Another team that had high expectations going into this season was Oregon Tech. The Owls and the Thunderbirds were the two teams that downed LCSC in conference series last season and were the two teams who handed it its two conference tournament losses.

Oregon Tech has had a slower start to the season compared to British Columbia. The Owls went 0-4 in a season-opening, four-game series against Jessup (Calif.) and went 2-2 in the Cajun Collision last week in Louisiana.

The Owls aren't lacking in talent — they have several players with a sub-3.50 ERA and a .300-or-better batting average — but close games have been their downfall. They're 2-5 in seven games this season decided by three runs or less. Oregon Tech coach Jacob Garsez has been praised by media outlets and fellow coaches, including LCSC skipper Jake Taylor. And, despite their results so far, it's unlikely that the Owls continue to drop many close games throughout the season.

The potential dark horse that can give the Warriors problems is College of Idaho.

The Coyotes, winners of the 1998 World Series and runners up in the 1999 championship, have had more than 35 wins just twice since 2010, but they've been improving.

Pitcher Nick Eliason was named conference pitcher of the week on Monday and was the only other Cascade Conference hurler along with the Thunderbirds' Heppner brothers to be named to Pitchers Digs' top-10 list.

But there's a reason College of Idaho is a dark horse. In a six-game road trip to begin its season in Arizona, it went 2-4 in games against Ottawa (Ariz.) and Park Gilbert (Ariz.). The Coyotes bounced back with a four-game series sweep against Westcliff (Calif.), but there's still some work to be done before this roster reaches its full potential.

This is all to say there's a lot of talent in the Cascade Conference. Arguably the most talent top-to-bottom that there's ever been.

Even with injuries to Isaiah Thomas and Jake Gish, it's unlikely that the Warriors struggle through the slate of conference opponents this year like they did last season. They got through the East/West Challenge with two top-10 wins, three top-25 wins and their lone blemish was against the consensus No. 1 team in the country two years removed from a World Series championship.

LCSC has a longer layoff until its next slate of games (a four-game series against College of Idaho starting Feb. 23) than intended after four games were canceled in California due to inclement weather. And the Warriors are going to follow that series with a four-game series against British Columbia on March 1, their first home series of the season.

The Warriors were already plagued by rust in the East/West Challenge after not practicing for two weeks prior due to weather. With weather continuing to be an issue in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and an eight-game slate against an improved Coyotes team and a fringe-World Series squad in the Thunderbirds, rust will need to be shaken off quickly.

But if LCSC can get through those first two series with 3-1 or 4-0 series results, the Warriors will be in a best-case scenario as they take on the rest of their schedule that includes No. 5 LSU Shreveport in April.

Kowatsch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, tkowatsch@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.